For six years, with remarkable uniformity, the mass media pounded home the Ronald Reagan myth: the strong president who made America feel good again. With the president’s image shredded by the Iran/Contra scandal, the myth-making machinery of the media have turned out a new legend: Ollie North, the beleaguered patriot standing tall for America in a dangerous world.
The passing of the baton from the old, tiring mythic figure to the gleaming new one was freeze-framed by polls showing that a majority believe the “Can Do Colonel” generally told Congress the truth, while most Americans think the President lied.
Reagan lying? Not long ago such a thought would have been blasphemous. Time’s July 4, 1986 cover story—featuring a beaming Reagan haloed by fireworks—called him “one of the strongest leaders of the 20th century.” “People tend to trust him,” Time asserted, “even if they utterly disagree with his principles.”
Yet almost overnight, the image shattered, revealing Ronald Reagan as he always was: weak, uninformed, bumbling, barely in command. This should have been obvious all along, but reporters focused less on facts than on the presumed psychic needs of the citizenry: “America wanted to feel strong again.”
One would think the media might have learned a lesson from the Reagan debacle. But coverage of North’s testimony was marked by the same superficiality, the same emphasis on style over substance. We were offered analyses of his chin line, his haircut and the way his voice choked up at just the right moment. John Chancellor announced that North turned in “a terrific performance” that “played in Peoria.” Ted Koppel said North held “an entire nation enthralled.” Dan Rather called it “Washington theater at its best.”
No one bothered to investigate the colonel’s main prop—the stacks of telegrams—to determine how many were churned out by organized right-wing lobbies. Or how many contained ethnic slurs aimed at committee chairman Daniel Inouye, Congressman Louis Stokes or chief counsel Arthur Liman. The fact that Western Union subsidized the telegrams to North by offering a sizable discount was also generally ignored by reporters.
TV newspeople seemed oblivious to the fact that their enthusiastic characterizations of North might impact the opinions viewers were forming about “America’s newest hero.” Tom Brokaw described North as an “earnest” witness, while Nightline compared him to the always honest protagonist in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Judy Woodruff of PBS even adopted North’s terminology, dignifying the Contras as “the Nicaraguan resistance.” (Woodruff has since informed FAIR that she is adopting more neutral language.)
Typically, there was far less emphasis on what North said than how he said it. TV analysts failed to point out even the most obvious contradictions:
- North portrayed himself as an anti-terrorist fighter, yet he sold missiles to Iran, which supported the 1983 terrorist strike that killed 241 Marines in Beirut.
- North trumpeted his role in apprehending the Achille Lauro hijackers, but his Contra supply network utilized the services of Manzer al-Kassar, a Syrian drug and gun-runner who also supplied weapons to the group that hijacked the Achille Lauro.
- North professed great concern about human life, but his “freedom fighters” have murdered thousands of Nicaraguan civilians (hundreds under the age of 12) in what Amnesty International has called “a pattern of torture and extrajudicial killings.”
The Ollie North television marathon was historic; never before had a political ideologue monopolized a half-dozen networks for a full week on behalf of a partisan cause. Such one-sidedness begged for balance, but little was offered. Aside from members of the Iran/Contra committee, the networks drew most of their guest “experts” from the ranks of intelligence operatives and hardline conservatives: Patrick Buchanan, John McLaughlin, soldier of fortune-type Andy Messing, former CIA officials Ray Cline and Bobby Inman.
NBC featured the wit and wisdom of Gen. John Singlaub, while ABC Nightline had Richard Secord on solo; both “analysts” are neck-deep in the scandal. Fred Thompson, who tried to protect Nixon while chief Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate committee, also made the rounds on TV. When Contra cheerleaders were paired in “debates,” their opponents were usually moderate Democrats more concerned about appearing “tough on Communism” than in forthrightly opposing US policy in Nicaragua.
Predictably, the networks clung to their practice of excluding leaders of the anti-intervention movement, which recently brought nearly 100,000 protesters to Washington. On TV one rarely hears from Americans who believe that the Contras are terrorists (the editorial position of the Boston Globe), that Nicaragua would be worse off if the Contras ever came to power (the position of ex-Contra leader Edgar Chamorro), or that the US has no business interfering in that country in the first place.
In contrast to the media hoopla over North’s Capitol Hill performance, little has been reported about Sen. John Kerry’s hearings into drug trafficking by the Contras. It is just one more factor that belies the “freedom fighter” label, which to a better informed public would sound absurd, even from the charismatic lips of Colonel North.
A version of this article by Jeff Cohen ran in several dailies.