Apr 1 1994

Walsh Report’s Scandalous Coverage

Lawrence Walsh

Lawrence Walsh

The media guardians of the Conventional Wisdom long ago decided that the Iran-Contra scandal is an old, irrelevant story that we would be better off forgetting. When President George Bush, just after losing his re-election bid, pardoned many of the leading figures in the scandal, PBS‘s Robert MacNeil (12/24/92) asked, “Why not bring in the healing power of the pardon…and sweep the bitterness away?” (See Extra!, 3/93.)

Mainstream media displayed that same “sweep it away” attitude in coverage of the final report of the Iran/Contra special counsel, Lawrence Walsh. For most news outlets, it was a one-day story, over before any reporter possibly could have read the 2,500-page document. Articles and broadcasts repeated personal attacks on Walsh made by Reagan administration officials implicated in the scandal, but no mainstream news outlet monitored by FAIR bothered to take an independent look at the evidence to see who was telling the truth and who was lying.

The dismissive attitude of the establishment press toward Walsh was epitomized by a front-page New York Times news analysis by David E. Rosenbaum (1/19/94), headlined “The Inquiry That Couldn’t.” Walsh, Rosenbaum claimed, “may turn out to be the most widely scorned figure in the whole affair.”

According to Rosenbaum, the report “added nothing but small details to what was already known about the case.” He then proceeded to summarize what he maintained were main points of the report: that US foreign policy “was all but turned over to and carried out by a secret band of shady international arms dealers and private operatives”; that only a “small number of people in the government…knew about these policies”; and that Reagan “paid little attention to these offenses at the time.”

In fact, Walsh’s report and news conference totally contradicted all these pieces of conventional wisdom, which were enshrined as the Official Story by the Tower Commission and the congressional Iran/Contra committee. “Evidence obtained by the independent counsel establishes that the Iran/Contra affair was not an aberrational scheme carried out by a ‘cabal of zealots’ on the National Security Council staff, as the congressional select committees concluded in their majority report,” Walsh wrote (quoted in In These Times, 2/7/94). “The evidence establishes that the central National Security Council operatives kept their superiors–including Reagan, Bush, Schultz, Weinberger and other high officials–informed of their efforts generally, if not in detail, and their superiors either condoned or turned a blind eye to them.”

New York Newsday got much closer to the truth with its front page headline (1/19/94): “Iran/Contra Report: Illegal Arms Sales No ‘Rogue Operation.'”

Perhaps the most bizarre journalistic decision was NBC News‘ choice (1/18/94) to assign Pete Williams, formerly assistant secretary of defense under President Bush, to cover the release of a report that makes serious charges of wrongdoing against Williams’ former employer. As chief spokesperson for the Pentagon during the invasion of Panama and the Gulf War, Williams specialized in distortion and suppression of information. His January 18 reporting shows that he can perform the same function in the private sector.

Much of Williams’ coverage was taken up by a selective and slanted account of what the Walsh report didn’t prove about Reagan/Bush administration wrongdoing:

His report claims no proof that President Reagan authorized or knew of a scheme to take money from arms sales to Iran and give it to the Nicaraguan Contras. Or that Vice President Bush or Attorney General Meese knew of it either. And no evidence that Reagan authorized Lt. Col. Oliver North to set up the secret Contra-supply operation.

But Williams couldn’t find room to mention anything that Walsh said that Bush was culpable of, including lying to the public about his central role in the Iran arms sales, and withholding evidence from the inquiry. Also unmentioned by Williams were Walsh’s angry criticisms of Bush’s last-minute pardons. If Bush was watching NBC, he would have been proud to see how dedicated Williams was to protecting his ex-boss.