Few individuals fascinate the U.S. media like Ollie North. Few subjects grab more media attention than drugs. Few democracies win more media praise than Costa Rica. Put these three into a single scandal and it spells Front Page News, right? Wrong. What it spells is C-E-N-S-O-R-S-H-I-P.
In July, North and other major Contragate figures were barred from Costa Rica. The order was issued by none other than Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. President Arias was acting on recommendations from a Costa Rican congressional commission investigating drug trafficking.
The commission concluded that the Contra resupply network in Costa Rica which North coordinated from the White House doubled as a drug smuggling operation.
The narcotics commission started probing the Contra network centered around the northern Costa Rican ranch of U.S.-born John Hull because of “the quantity and frequency of the shipment of drugs that passed through the zone.” North’s personal notebook mentioned “the necessity of giving Mr. Hull protection.” (San Juan Star, Puerto Rico, 7/22/89).
Investigators held North responsible for Gen. Manuel Noriega’s participation in the contra supply network, which opened the door to at least seven pilots who trafficked in drugs while supplying arms to the Contras. “These requests for contra help were initiated by Colonel North to General Noriega,” the commission reported. “They opened a gate so their henchmen could utilize [Costa Rican] territory for trafficking in arms and drugs.” (Tico Times, Costa Rica, 7/28/89).
Barred from Costa Rica along with North were Maj. Gen. Richard Secord, former National Security Adviser John Poindexter, former U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Lewis Tambs and former CIA station chief in Costa Rica Joseph Fernandez. This winter, Costa Rica’s congress will vote on the permanent implementation of the bannings. In an interview with Extra!, Costa Rican Minister of Information, Jorge Urbina, stated: “I can assure you that the recommendations will pass nearly unanimously.”
The Costa Rican government inquiry confirmed information about Contra/drug links developed by independent journalists, lawyers and a U.S. Senate subcommittee. Ollie North’s notebooks contain dozens of references to Contra-related drug trafficking, including a July 12, 1985 entry: “$14 million to finance [arms] came from drugs.”
When high-ranking officials of the “Just Say No” administration are banned–due to drug links–from the country U.S. editorial writers hail as Central America’s leading democracy, one might have expected major coverage. One would have been wrong. Although a lengthy Associated Press wire report (7/22/89) carried the story into virtually every newsroom in the U.S., major media largely ignored the story or, like the Washington Post and Miami Herald, relegated it to “In Brief” sections. The New York Times and the three major TV networks failed to mention it at all.
During a period when drug coverage reached hysterical proportions, when Oliver North made news by lecturing campus audiences on the evils of drugs and pledging to do anti-drug work in serving out his criminal sentence of 1500 hours of community service, most media could not find space to mention the Costa Rica bannings. Even when President Bush, 17 other heads of state, and many dozens of U.S. reporters journeyed to Costa Rica in October to celebrate “100 years of democracy,” the story failed to attract interest.
It wasn’t for lack of knowledge; FAIR provided information about developments in the case to many national media who’d already received the original AP story). FAIR’s Steve Rendall later contacted the three TV networks, New York Times and Washington Post to ask why the story had been buried or ignored. Journalists offered no real answers.
Typical was the response from Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, who stated, “Just because a congressional commission in Costa Rica says something, doesn’t mean it’s true.” Ironically, through all the years that wildly false statements by U.S. officials on Central America have received prominent uncritical coverage, these same media have responded to FAIR’s complaints thusly: “When leaders of a democracy make statements, it’s news and we have to cover it. We aren’t ruling on whether it’s true or not.”
If, as a media consumer, you would like your own explanations as to why the following national media have buried the story, you could contact their foreign desks. You might also ask your local media. (Final action on the bannings by Costa Rica’s congress is expected in February.)
Truth Vs. Facts: ABC Town Meeting on Coverage of Iran/Contra (12/17/86)
Jeff Cohen (FAIR): For nearly six years of [Reagan’s] presidency, the media seemed to be winking and nodding off as the White House dominated the headlines with foreign policy cover stories that time and again proved later to be false: the phantom Soviet MIGs that were never in Nicaragua, the phantom Libyan hit squads, the so-called “irrefutable evidence” that linked the disco bombing in Berlin to the Libyans, all the little white lies that justified the invasion of Grenada…. Didn’t this [press gullibility] give a green light to the kind of foreign policy escapades and adventures that have now finally come to light?
Helen Thomas (UPI): You have a good point. But when the president makes a statement, when the secretary of state pounds his fist for 10 months talking about terrorism…I think you cannot do anything but cover the story and quote them….
Cohen: Helen, didn’t we learn from the McCarthy era that just because a senator says it, doesn’t mean it deserves a lot of publicity? Haven’t we learned in 30 years that just because a White House official says something, it may not be true and it’s got to be researched?
Bill Plante (CBS): I can’t accept your premise that we swallowed all those things whole. They were all reported with the appropriate caveats at the time.
Cohen: Except the truth always appears too little, too late on the back pages, but Reagan got the headlines when he talked about all those scare stories.
Ted Koppel (ABC): Well, Mr. Cohen, maybe I should point out that we are in the business of facts, initially, and the truth sometimes takes a little longer to come out. That’s one of the sad realities of journalism.