Feb
01
2006

20 Stories That Made a Difference

For better or worse

FAIR was founded on the belief that journalism matters—that getting out the truth can improve the world, while news that distorts or denies reality can have terrible consequences.

To illustrate this conviction, we've compiled a list of 20 news stories published since FAIR's 1986 debut that had a major impact on society—for good or for ill. The list is not meant to be a comprehensive collection of the most momentous stories of the past 20 years, but rather to be illustrative of the power of media. Stories that should have led to serious changes, but were underplayed by corporate media, would be an entirely different list, of course.

1. The Contra Resupply Network

The Reagan administration's secret support for Nicaragua's Contras unraveled in 1986 when the Associated Press published stories (e.g., 10/8/86, 10/19/86, 10/27/86) revealing White House links to illegal resupply flights. The Contras, a rebel army created, funded and directed by the CIA, killed thousands of Nicaraguan civilians in a war to bring down the left-leaning, democratically elected Sandinista government. Through interviews and the examination of the log books from a CIA plane shot down by Sandinista forces in October 1986, AP reporter Robert Parry exposed the "Contra" side of the story that would soon be known as the Iran-Contra scandal.

2. The Iranian Arms-for-Hostages Deal

Days after AP's Contra revelations, the "Iran" side of Iran-Contra emerged as the Lebanese weekly Ash Shirra (11/3/86) revealed that the U.S. was secretly selling arms to Iran in hopes of getting U.S. hostages released by pro-Iran militants in Lebanon. The story infuriated President Ronald Reagan, who denied the U.S. was trading arms for hostages and lashed out at the press for spoiling what the White House depicted as an innocent diplomatic effort (Washington Post, 12/1/86): "What is driving me up the wall is that this wasn't a failure until the press got a tip from that rag in Beirut and began to play it up. . . . The press has to take responsibility for what they have done.''

But Reagan's defiance disappeared when digging by U.S. reporters, such as the Washington Post's David Hoffman (11/14/86, 11/16/86), contradicted the White House claims, ultimately revealing that the White House was funneling profits from the Iranian arms sales to the Contras. Iran-Contra, the largest of the Reagan White House's many scandals, would result in more than a dozen indictments and nine convictions.

3. Redlining

"Whites receive five times as many home loans from Atlanta's banks and savings and loans as blacks of the same income," the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution declared on May 1, 1988, "and that gap has been widening each year, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution study of $6.2 billion in lending shows."

So began Bill Dedman's lengthy Pulitzer Prize-winning series, which stands as a testament to the power of first-rate investigative journalism that sets out to measure and document social inequality.

Over four days, the paper detailed its community's discriminatory and illegal lending practices, known as "redlining." The local response was swift: "Within a week, Atlanta's nine largest banks and savings and loans announced they would lend $65 million at interest rates as low as the prime rate for home purchases and home improvements, mostly on the black Southside," the Austin Business Journal reported (2/19/90).

The stories reverberated throughout the country, eliciting calls for a Justice Department inquiry and a Senate Banking Committee investigation. As noted by the Columbia Journalism Review (3-4/95), Dedman's reporting changed the way lending institutions report loan data—a boon to investigators of all sorts, including other reporters.

But as Dedman noted in the documentary Fear and Favor in the Newsroom, some board members at Cox Newspapers, the Journal-Constitution's parent company, were unhappy with the series, feeling that it could harm the paper's advertising base—and the board members' own relationships with the local banking industry.

4. Civil Rights Era Crimes

Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, began to seriously investigate unsolved civil rights crimes after watching the film Mississippi Burning. His subsequent reporting has led to criminal prosecutions in some of the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era.

Mitchell, for example, tracked down secret documents (10/1/89) that would eventually lead to the arrest of Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Mitchell's investigation (beginning on 12/27/98) into the famous 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner led to the indictment and arrest of Edgar Ray Killen, a key figure in the crime who, according to Mitchell's reporting, whould have been behind bars 30 years ealier on the basis of confessions from two of Killen's co-conspirators.

And Mitchell revealed (7/4/99) that a suspect in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church—which killed four young African-American girls—had provided authorities with a bogus alibi. "For three and a half decades, his alibi had gone unchallenged," Mitchell told American Journalism Review (4-5/05). "It was just Reporting 101."

5. The Kuwaiti Incubators

In the autumn of 1990, a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times (9/17/90) gave a harrowing report of the atrocities being committed by the Iraqi troops occupying Kuwait: "In one case, refugees reported that incubators for premature babies were confiscated by Iraqi troops and the babies inside were piled on the floor and left to die." The Times directly prefaced this with the information that "Western officials" were saying that many of the atrocities "appeared to be well-documented and supported by enough eyewitness accounts that they could be considered true."

A week later, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland repeated the tale (9/25/90), but the story wouldn't reach its full potential until October 10, when a 15-year-old girl calling herself "Nayirah" told a U.S. congressional caucus: "I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the children to die on the cold floor." Excerpts of Nayirah's address ended up on Larry King Live (10/16/90) and the incubator story flourished in the press (e.g., USA Today, 10/11/90; AP, 10/15/90). President George H.W. Bush cited the incubator claim at least 10 times in his successful attempt to rally Americans and prospective allies to war against Iraq.

There is no doubt that Iraqis committed atrocities in Kuwait, but the incubator story was a hoax. Reporting by Alexander Cockburn (The Nation, 2/4/91), ABC reporter John Martin (World News Tonight, 3/15/91) and John R. MacArthur (Second Front) would show that the incubator stories were fabricated, and Nayirah al-Sabah, in truth the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, was working with public relations giant Hill & Knowlton to agitate for a U.S. war against Iraq.

But a successful hoax it was. In a segment critical of the incubator claims, CBS's 60 Minutes (1/19/92) described Nayirah's story as the "one image, one presence [that] touched American hearts and minds like no other."

6. The Rodney King Video

If George Holliday hadn't shot home video footage of Los Angeles police officers beating an African-American motorist following a high-speed chase, Rodney King would be just another unknown victim of police brutality. But Holliday's oft-aired footage—first played in its nine-minute-plus entirety over local station KTLA (3/4/91)—turned the event into an iconic moment that focused widespread attention on King's mistreatment and the larger issue of police abuses. When the officers were acquitted on state charges despite the evidence of the tapes, the verdict sparked the L.A. riots (Extra!, 7-8/92) and provoked examination of racism in the criminal justice system. Holliday's video also encouraged an activist movement for grassroots newsgathering and monitoring of police agencies.

7. The Dili Massacre

Following the U.S.-backed Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, U.S. news media maintained a virtual blackout for over 15 years about the occupation and the atrocities occurring in the tiny island country (Extra!, 11-12/93). But in 1991, three journalists forced East Timor back on the media map and into the public consciousness.

On November 12, Allan Nairn of the New Yorker, Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio and British filmmaker Max Stahl attended a peaceful funeral procession in the East Timorese capital of Dili that turned deadly when Indonesian military opened fire on the crowd and killed more than 250. Nairn and Goodman were beaten but managed to escape, as did Stahl, and their eyewitness reports and video of the massacre alerted the Western world to the dire situation in East Timor, sparking a grassroots movement opposing U.S. support for the Indonesian occupation.

Though the mainstream media's newfound attention to East Timor was initially slight, Goodman and Nairn continued to doggedly pursue the story throughout the '90s, with Nairn repeatedly returning to East Timor to file reports despite an Indonesian order barring his entry. His reporting helped to keep the story on the radar, and in 1999, the U.S. finally suspended all military ties with Indonesia, which promptly pulled out from East Timor.

8. Whitewater

New York Times investigative reporter Jeff Gerth (3/8/92) broke the Whitewater "scandal" with the front-page report, "Clintons Joined S&L Operator in an Ozark Real-Estate Venture." The piece, long on insinuation and short on evidence, suggested that Bill and Hillary Clinton traded regulatory favors for a sweetheart deal on a piece of Arkansas real estate known as Whitewater.

The piece was notable for withholding exculpatory information, like the fact that the S&L regulator supposedly appointed as a favor to S&L executive Jim McDougal actually tried to shut down his business. (See Extra!, 11-12/96.) As Gene Lyons, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist and strong critic of the Times' Whitewater reporting, explained it in his book Fools for Scandal, the public never understood Whitewater because it was "a shaggy dog story"—a tale whose needless complexity conceals its pointlessness.

Nevertheless, Gerth's reporting spawned a cottage industry in Whitewater-related scandals that would eventually lead to Clinton being impeached on oral sex-related charges. As for Whitewater itself, the Clintons were cleared of any wrongdoing—after the Office of the Independent Council had spent 10 years and $73 million (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 3/27/02).

9. USAID Exporting Jobs

Conventional wisdom tells us that journalists should not be advocates. But sometimes great journalism is uncovered first by social justice activists. In 1992, Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee went to several corporate media outlets to share the story he'd uncovered: how the U.S. government was actively luring U.S. companies to move their manufacturing out of the United States.

The program was largely the work of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which provided tax breaks and low-interest loans to companies that would move jobs to Central America. The story broke on CBS's 60 Minutes (9/27/92), and included Kernaghan and two other men posing as officials from a bogus textile company. Their hidden cameras recorded a meeting with a USAID official who touted the many virtues of moving production to Honduras.

The story continued the next day in the Los Angeles Times (9/28/92), with the paper crediting Kernaghan ("an intense young union official") for much of the original research. A night later, the story was reprised on ABC's Nightline (9/29/92).

The timing of the story was key, as the country faced the lingering effects of recession and unemployment. As CBS reporter Ed Bradley asked a USAID official, "Do you think that it is in our national interest to create jobs in Central America through U.S. taxpayer money?" The USAID issue became part of the jobs debate that helped swing the 1992 presidential election. Kernaghan went on to generate another iconic moment for the anti-sweatshop movement when popular TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford cried on television (New York Daily News, 5/1/96) in response to his 1996 congressional testimony revealing that her clothing line was manufactured by children in Honduras.

10. The Bell Curve

Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's 1994 book The Bell Curve did not burst into the public consciousness based on new information or scholarly merit—indeed, the book attempted to recast old, discredited eugenic theories about the inferiority of the poor and non-white—but rather because many prestigious media outlets embraced it. New York Times science writer Malcolm Browne gave it a near-rave review (10/16/94), insisting that the authors were "recognized by colleagues as serious scholars." The Bell Curve, wrote Browne, "makes a strong case that America's population is becoming dangerously polarized between a smart, rich, educated elite and a population of unintelligent, poor and uneducated people." (See Extra! Update, 12/94.)

Respectful treatment by the Times helped set the tone for other media coverage that would follow. And follow it did. The New Republic devoted nearly an entire issue to a debate about the book (10/31/94), with editor Andrew Sullivan justifying the decision by writing, "The notion that there might be resilient ethnic differences in intelligence is not, we believe, an inherently racist belief." As Extra! pointed out at the time (1-2/95), "In fact, the idea that some races are inherently inferior to others is the definition of racism."

The Bell Curve received prominent and serious coverage on such public affairs programs as Nightline (10/21/94), the McLaughlin Group (10/21/94) and the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (10/28/94). The "controversy" also made the cover of Newsweek (10/24/94), while it took up nearly a full op-ed page in the Wall Street Journal (10/10/94).

These discussions were largely uninformed by the considered opinions of scientists in the field, and this was by design: Flouting scientific convention, the authors purposely avoided sending galleys to potentially critical readers. When The Bell Curve was finally scrutinized by scientific experts, it was nearly universally panned for shoddy and biased research (Slate, 1/18/97).

But it was too late to counteract the message put forth by the book's media supporters that racism is a legitimate intellectual position. As Murray wrote in a proposal for the book (New York Times Magazine, 10/9/94), there are "a huge number of well-meaning whites who fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not. It's going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say."

11. Death Row Exonerations

In 1996, four African-American men—two of whom were awaiting execution—were released from an Illinois prison after their wrongful convictions were overturned in court. The men had been found guilty of murdering a young couple in 1978. What made their story remarkable was the fact that the move to exonerate the Ford Heights Four was largely the work of journalism students (aided by an earlier investigation by the magazine Chicago Lawyer—7/92). The three students and their Northwestern University journalism professor, David Protess, would soon become the focus of worldwide media exposure.

About one year after Northwestern students were instrumental in exonerating yet another death row prisoner, Illinois Gov. George Ryan in February 2000 announced a death penalty moratorium. Similar hesitations about the death penalty among political elites across the country can be traced in part to the Northwestern students' work.

The fact that Protess was teaching his students about the real-world impact of investigative journalism was not universally appreciated. When several of Protess' students worked to prevent an earlier execution, a Chicago Tribune news article (5/11/95) questioned whether this was appropriate behavior, noting that "it might even give some parents pause about whether their stiff tuition is being appropriately invested."

12. "Saddam Must Go"

In the Weekly Standard's November 17, 1997 cover story, "Saddam Must Go," editor Bill Kristol and contributing editor Robert Kagan called for war against Iraq: "We know it seems unthinkable to propose another ground attack to take Baghdad. But it's time to start thinking the unthinkable." Kristol and Kagan, also the founders of the hawkish group Project for a New American Century, argued that Saddam Hussein had humiliated the United States by expelling U.S. officials from U.N. weapons inspection teams. The editorial cited unspecified sources about Iraq's chemical and biological weapons capabilities, and concluded with this dark warning: "If you don't like this option, we've got another one for you: continue along the present course and get ready for the day when Saddam has biological and chemical weapons at the tips of missiles aimed at Israel and at American forces in the Gulf. That day may not be far off."

The article was the first installment in what would be a relentless crusade for war in the Standard's pages. Just two weeks after it was published, the magazine ran "Overthrow Him," by Zalmay Kahlilzad and Paul Wolfowitz (12/1/97), who would both have prominent jobs in the Bush administration. In an In These Times story looking back over the Standard's 10-year history (10/6/05), Craig Aaron reported that the "Saddam Must Go" piece "is widely credited with planting the seeds for the invasion and occupation of Iraq." Indeed, that article, along with the Standard's extended pro-war campaign, are often cited as influencing elite thinking on the decision to go to war (e.g., Washington Post, 1/12/03; New York Times, 2/1/03). The neo-conservative Standard's paleo-conservative rival, the American Conservative (11/21/05), has even referred to the Iraq War as "The Weekly Standard's War."

13. The Contra-Crack Connection

Ten years after Robert Parry and Brian Barger (AP, 12/20/85) exposed the role of the CIA-backed Contras in the cocaine trade—to relatively little public attention—San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb advanced the story, writing an explosive three-part series (8/18-20/96) that documented a connection between Contra-linked cocaine traffickers and the crack explosion of the 1980s.

Webb also cited U.S. law enforcement officials who said the CIA had prevented investigation of the Contra traffickers, effectively protecting the flow of cut-rate cocaine into vulnerable urban centers. The series, initially ignored by other mainstream media but reaching a national audience through the emerging Internet, ignited protests in African-American and progressive communities, eventually forcing a new internal investigation at the CIA.

14. Contra-Crack Backlash

Webb's success in exposing government misdeeds was soon undercut by another feat of journalism: the mainstream media's full-scale assault on Webb. Having spent the previous 10 years either ignoring the Contra-cocaine story or dismissing it as a conspiracy theory, major newspapers seemed furious that a reporter at a small regional paper would challenge their status as the arbiters of truth. The Washington Post (10/4/96), Los Angeles Times (10/20-22/96) and New York Times (10/21/96) devoted much ink to pooh-poohing Webb's story, citing spurious complaints like Webb's referring to the Contras as "the CIA's army" (Extra!, 1-2/97). Webb's own editor, Jerry Ceppos, eventually caved to the pressure, publishing a front-page climb-down (5/11/97) and taking Webb off his beat.

The internal CIA probe sparked by Webb confirmed the substance of his report—that the CIA had known about Contra drug connections from the beginning, and had worked to keep the trafficking under wraps and undisturbed. But the establishment papers managed to squelch both Webb's story and the CIA report, keeping the CIA's deeds from the majority of the public and destroying the career of an outstanding reporter. In 2004, a despondent Webb took his own life.

15. Matthew Shepard

Before Matthew Shepard was beaten and left for dead in Laramie, Wyoming on October 7, 1998, homophobic violence and discrimination received little serious attention in the news or the general public. But the attack on the 21-year-old gay man struck a media nerve—starting with an AP story (10/9/98) whose lead memorably described Shepard as having been "tied to a wooden ranch fence like a scarecrow"—marking the first time an anti-gay attack received extensive and sympathetic coverage.

His orientation aside, Shepard's story had many of the elements that commercial media look for in a crime story: a young, good-looking white victim with a dramatic death (whose crucifixion imagery added poignancy). But some outlets produced remarkably in-depth and reflective journalism that shone a harsh light on homophobia; the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (10/15/98, 1/20/99) singled out the Casper Star-Tribune and the Denver Post in particular for their coverage.

Such reporting did much to transform the rights of the gay and lesbian community into a serious topic of discussion in the media and the public; even President Bill Clinton addressed the attack in a public speech (10/10/98). As a Boston Globe news article remarked (3/7/02), "The homicide that ushered the phrase ‘hate crime' into mainstream parlance has become an emotional and political watershed, the kind of event that stirs strong feelings in people who know none of the parties involved."

16. Trent Lott

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's long-term ties to the racist Council of Conservative Citizens emerged into public view in 1998 because of the dogged reporting of Washington Post reporter Thomas Edsall (12/16/98) and New York Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch (12/30/98), with help from independent researchers (including FAIR—Extra!, 3-4/99). But the rest of the press was slow to catch on to the story, and in the end, Lott managed to survive the scandal with his job.

Then, on December 5, 2002, Lott praised the 1948 segregationist candidacy of retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond at the latter's 100th birthday party: "I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of him. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Lott's retroactive endorsement of a racist campaign, whose chief planks were segregation and opposition to federal anti-lynching legislation, was a dramatic story, particularly in the context of the 1998 reporting. But despite the presence of 12 journalists at the party and its broadcast on C-SPAN, there was little mainstream mention of Lott's comments until five days later. While the press was snoozing, bloggers such as the left-leaning Joshua Micah Marshall (Talking Points Memo, 12/6/02) and right-leaning Andrew Sullivan (12/8/02) kept banging the drum, keeping the story alive until the mainstream media caught up. And when it did—on December 10, all three nightly network shows aired stories—Lott was forced by political pressure to step down from his job as majority leader (Washington Post, 12/16/02).

17. Weapons of Mass Destruction

In its push to sell a "pre-emptive" war against Iraq, the White House of George W. Bush had to convince the public that Iraq harbored dangerous weapons of mass destruction that might result in "a mushroom cloud" if military action were not taken quickly. Instrumental in making that case were mainstream media outlets that played up the Iraq WMD threat, lending credibility to administration claims. No reporter was more influential in that role than the New York Times' Judith Miller.

Miller's prominent stories hyping purported Iraqi weapons go back to 1998 (2/26/98), full of dramatic but unverified claims and unreliable sources. "All of Iraq is one large storage facility" for WMD, she credulously quoted one source (9/8/02). Miller played down skepticism and conflicting evidence, both of which were readily available to any reporter, and in so doing handed the Bush administration crucial support; with the "liberal" New York Times repeatedly trumpeting WMD claims on its front page, skeptics became increasingly marginalized in mainstream discussions.

The New York Times eventually published a lengthy editor's note (5/26/04) conceding that it botched its WMD reporting—but left unmentioned in that mea culpa was the fact that six of the nine faulty articles it examined were either written or co-written by Judith Miller. It took Miller's involvement in the vengeful leak of a CIA officer's name to finally goad the Times into letting her go—reportedly with a hefty severance package.

18. Niger Uranium

To hear former New York Times reporter Judith Miller's most passionate defenders tell it, anonymous sources are the key to breaking big stories. But the case of former diplomat Joe Wilson is an instructive counterexample. Wilson was a source for several reporters in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion (e.g., New York Times, 6/13/03), noting confidentially that the White House should have known that some of its claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were baseless. But it was only when Wilson emerged from the shadows on July 7, 2003, with an op-ed in the New York Times and an appearance on NBC's influential Meet the Press, that his dissenting information began to have an impact.

What Wilson had to say was certainly news—that he was the one sent to investigate rumors about an Iraq-Niger uranium deal, that he had deemed such a transaction unlikely and that his opinion had been shared by other intelligence analysts before his February 2002 trip. Wilson's on-the-record pronouncement caused a media firestorm, with White House officials advising reporters to keep a safe distance from Wilson's claims. Wilson's credibility was assailed by an assortment of pro-White House pundits, and his wife's classified CIA status was revealed by columnist Robert Novak (Washington Post, 7/14/03). The ensuing investigation has put some top administration officials in legal jeopardy; more importantly, the questions that Wilson raised about the White House's mishandling of intelligence have kept the story of how the country was misled into war on the media agenda.

19. Abu Ghraib

Though human rights groups had been sounding alarms since May 2003 (Wall Street Journal, 5/7/03; New York Times, 5/17/03), and allegations of mistreatment were reported in late 2003 by journalists such as AP's Charles Hanley (11/1/03), torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. personnel received little more than polite mention in U.S. media until April 2004. That's when CBS's 60 Minutes II (4/28/04) aired pictures of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison being sexually humiliated, threatened and attacked by dogs—and even the body of an Iraqi who had been beaten to death. Lamenting how long it had taken for the abuse story to get its due, Hanley told Editor & Publisher (5/13/04): "There seems to be a tendency at times to discount the statements of others—people like Iraqi former detainees—if they are not somehow supported by a U.S. source, or perhaps by some photographs."

Two days after the 60 Minutes II report, veteran reporter Seymour Hersh revealed on the New Yorker's website (4/30/04) the existence of a secret military report concluding that several instances of "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuse" had transpired at Abu Ghraib. The report would later come to be known as the Taguba report, after its author, an Army general, who also suggested that ranking military and intelligence officers and private contractors were behind the abuse. Though the scandal has only resulted in low-level prosecutions so far, it has brought widespread condemnation and focused global attention on U.S. disregard for international law.

20. Hurricane Katrina

The first days after Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters swept through New Orleans brought out some of the most honest and affecting journalism the public had seen in a long time. Because officials were nowhere to be found on the ground, reporters were getting their information raw and unfiltered, and they experienced the ravages of the flood and the shocking lack of government response firsthand along with trapped residents.

NBC photojournalist Tony Zumbado was one of the first reporters to visit the New Orleans convention center, where thousands of people had seen no help arrive for over four days. Zumbado delivered an impassioned nine-minute report on MSNBC (9/1/05), with stark footage of the desperate and dying, and heart-wrenching commentary that pointed the finger at the failure of authorities: "There's no support here. There's no foundation. There's no plan B, plan A. These people are very desperate. I saw two gentlemen die in front of me because of dehydration. . . . I just tell you, I couldn't take it."

Zumbado's report and other powerful pieces (Extra! Update, 10/05) were played over and over around the country, arousing enormous public outcry against the government's incompetence, and relief efforts were soon stepped up as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, was forced to step down. Though as the situation normalized and officials regained their footing, journalists gradually shifted back into their usual modes of reporting (Extra!, 11-12/05), for a short time, at least, they doggedly did what journalism is supposed to: hold government officials accountable.