Iraqgate--A Case Study of a Big Story With Little Impact : Journalism: Despite hundreds of news reports, no public outrage has erupted over secret U.S. aid to Iraq.
Eight months ago, the Los Angeles Times published the first in a continuing series of articles charging that the Bush Administration had secretly funneled several billion dollars worth of loan guarantees and military technology to Saddam Hussein from 1986 to 1990. Directly and indirectly, the stories said, this money and materiel gave Hussein the very weapons he later used against American and allied forces in the Persian Gulf War.
The Times stories--many based on previously secret papers prepared by the Bush Administration--also alleged that the Administration tried to cover up what it had done by altering documents it supplied to Congress and by attempting to obstruct official investigations of aid to Iraq.
The Times has now published more than 100 stories, totaling more than 90,000 words, on the scandal known as Iraqgate. Almost half these stories have appeared on Page 1. Although The Times “got a good chunk of the story first,” as William Safire wrote in a New York Times column, many other news organizations--print and broadcast--have also pursued it. But even though 1992 is an election year and President Bush has proven vulnerable on other grounds, Iraqgate has had negligible impact on the national political scene.
Shortly after The Times stories began running, Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), chairman of the House Banking Committee, cited them in calling for congressional hearings on Iraqgate. Gonzalez, who had been investigating the role in Iraqgate of the Atlanta branch of the Italian government-owned Banca Nazionale del Lavoro for more than a year, also read dozens of classified documents on Iraqgate into the Congressional Record.
But the House was often near-empty when Gonzalez was reading, and Gonzalez was dismissed by many as “an amiable blowhard, a colorful character, and not as a serious exposer of wrongdoing, which is what he is,” Safire says.
There was no public outcry over Iraqgate similar to that which triggered the Watergate and Iran-Contra investigations. When U.S. Atty. Gen. William P. Barr announced in August that he would not appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether any laws were broken, the reaction, especially outside Washington, was barely perceptible. Only in recent weeks has the story spurred appreciable political activity, and even now, it does not seem to have had substantial impact on the general public.
The myriad answers to that question make for an intriguing and revealing case study of both the journalistic and political processes.
In a sense, the muted public reaction to Iraqgate has its roots in the so-called Teflon presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Under President Reagan, the rich got richer while the poor got poorer; the national debt tripled; the stock market crashed; the exploding AIDS epidemic was long neglected, and deregulation policies were enacted that helped trigger the savings and loan crisis. At the same time, there were many stories about Reagan being so “laid-back,” such a hands-off manager, that he remained “disengaged” from even the most significant policy decisions of his eight-year presidency--including the arms-for-hostages deal that became known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
But those stories had little real impact on Reagan’s standing with voters. He remained extraordinarily popular throughout most of his two terms, and there is little doubt that if the Constitution had permitted him to run for a third term, he would have been easily reelected.
Despite many stories on Reagan’s shortcomings, the American public clearly felt that after seeing Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter all driven from the Oval Office, they “just didn’t want to see the ritual destruction and inevitable failure of another presidency, especially a President who seemed to be such an amiable and well-intentioned fellow” as Reagan, in the words of Howell Raines, Washington editor of the New York Times.
President Bush doesn’t arouse the same feelings of intense affection in the electorate as his predecessor, but he does benefit from the same scandal-weary attitude in the body politic, the same public reluctance to wallow in yet another tale of low deeds in high places.
Richard Smith, editor-in-chief of Newsweek, says the “post-Watergate mood of . . . official Washington” is that the special prosecutor in the Iran-Contra scandal “was not turning up bombshell revelations and I suspect that the attitude (on Iraqgate) was: ‘Do we want to go through this all over again?’ ”
“There’s a weariness in Washington about special prosecutors and investigations in general,” Smith says.
In addition, Bush’s dismal drift in the public opinion polls the last few months notwithstanding, it’s worth remembering that in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, his job approval rating was 89%--more than 20 points higher than President Reagan ever registered.
Thus, early Los Angeles Times stories on Iraqgate did not meet what Safire calls “the gas-filled room requirement.”
“If you strike a match in a room that is not filled with gas,” he says, you don’t get an explosion; “all you get is one candlepower worth of publicity.” On “Iraqgate,” he says, the Los Angeles Times stories were “excellent . . . (but) the room was not filled with gas, although some of us were doing our best to pump it in from the very beginning.”
There was no gas in the room because Bush was still popular. More specifically, when the early Iraqgate stories broke, most Americans still felt euphoric about the quick allied victory in the 100-hour Gulf War. Just as they had not wanted their warm feelings for Reagan tainted by any acknowledgment of his shortcomings, so they were in no mood to have that victory tainted by charges that the same people who won the war (the Bush Administration) had actually--foolishly? illegally?--made the war inevitable.
This attitude also helps explain why there has been so little public interest in stories suggesting that the Gulf War victory was neither as clean nor as complete as the American public was originally told.
U.S. “smart bombs” weren’t really so smart. Iraq’s mobile Scud launchers weren’t really destroyed in large numbers. There were far more civilian casualties in Baghdad than the Pentagon had acknowledged during the war. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf was admittedly “suckered” in failing to ban Iraqi helicopters from the skies immediately after the war, thus enabling Hussein’s forces to massacre thousands of Kurds.
“But people thought they had seen the war with their own eyes,” says Edward Kosner, editor and publisher of New York magazine. “They saw the U.S. achieve our basic objective of getting Iraq out of Kuwait. With U.S. casualties very light, nothing else really mattered, and there was little room for recriminations,” whether they involved secret, allegedly illegal policies before the war or misleading information during the war.
Many journalists agree:
* Iraqgate and critical analysis of the war itself “complicate what was a very simple story,” says Michael Kinsley, a syndicated columnist. “We were mad at Hussein. We went to war. We won.”
* The national mood was not to “besmirch something that was fine and beautiful,” Safire says.
* “Most people tend not to hear things they don’t want to hear,” says Seymour Hersh, an author and former New York Times reporter.
Moreover, Hersh says, the press corps had been “cowed by 12 years of press spin control by the Bush and Reagan administrations,” and--as with Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal--most reporters were not eager to go after Bush on Iraqgate.
But the explanation is more complicated than that.
As election polls have repeatedly shown in recent months, most people seem to care about only one issue now--the economy. The economy is a complex story, but it can be reduced to a very simple story: People need jobs. People need money.
Most voters don’t seem to care what the President did for Hussein three or four years ago--or what he knew or didn’t know about Iran-Contra when Reagan was President; they want to know what the President--whoever he is--is going to do for them right now.
Even in more receptive times, Iraqgate would have been a complex story to communicate to the average reader and viewer, though. It involves foreign banks, international subterfuge and a large cast of largely unknown characters, operating in secret over several years’ time. It’s not a the kind of “sexy,” simple story, with instant titillation and a clear resolution, that generally makes for immediate impact. Many journalists say all that helped keep the story from making a big splash on television--and that kept it from registering significantly with the American public.
But Douglas Frantz, a reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, believes that the complexity argument is a “cop-out.”
Along with Murray Waas, a free-lance writer who brought the original Iraqgate documents and other information to The Times, Frantz has written and reported most of the paper’s Iraqgate stories, and he doesn’t think Iraqgate is much more complex than many other stories he’s written over the years.
“All the important characters are Americans, and they’re figures who are involved at the highest levels of government,” Frantz says.
Many in the media disagree with Frantz on the complexity issue, but--more important--they also point out that, unlike either the economy or the Gulf War, Iraqgate has no real personal resonance for most news consumers. In the war, many people personally knew some of the troops sent overseas, and many others worried about whether the war might expand and whether Iraqi terrorists might strike targets in the United States. With the economy, people worry about losing their jobs and paying their bills.
Iraqgate is just another (alleged) government scandal, though--and one involving a faraway country at that. Most Americans are notoriously uninterested in other countries unless it directly affects them--as in a war or, in the mid-1970s, the Arab oil crisis.
“The value of the dollar relative to foreign currencies is important to the United States, but it doesn’t seem important or relevant to most people here until it affects them personally--when they’re traveling abroad or planning to do so soon,” says Daniel Wegner, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.
That’s one reason that the famine in Somalia and the violent unrest in Bosnia-Herzegovina “took weeks and weeks to bang into peoples’s consciousness” here, in the words of columnist Kinsley.
“There’s no suggestion of Americans going over there to fight,” says Morley Safer of “60 Minutes.”
Americans were riveted--and enraged--by the Iran hostage crisis that dragged on from 1979 to 1981 in large part because it was a personal story involving specific Americans suffering in cruel confinement while their families waited helplessly at home. Everyone realized: “That could have happened to me. Or my husband. Or my neighbor.”
But now, even with new evidence emerging to suggest that President Bush may have lied about being “out of the loop” on the Iran-Contra scandal, people seem resolutely uninterested. It doesn’t affect them. Besides, many people may confuse Iraqgate with Iran-Contra--or simply view both, as well as the question of just what signals the Bush Administration sent Hussein right before Iraq invaded Kuwait, as all part of one large, confusing Mideast issue. To them, it’s all old news. History. The same is true of Gov. Bill Clinton’s problems with the draft. Some people may hold it against him but the polls suggest that most regard it, too, as history. The country has other, bigger, newer problems.
“Americans don’t have a sense of history,” says Roger Fransecky, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and media consultant. “Americans today are like people speeding down the highway in a car with the rear window blacked out.
“What they remember (about Iraq) is the three guys (CNN correspondents) standing in the hotel room in Baghdad” as the bombs and missiles fell. They don’t much care about what got us involved with Iraq to begin with.
The media actually began trying to explain what became the Iraqgate story even before the Gulf War, but they didn’t arouse much response then either.
The first stories examining the role of the West in arming Iraq appeared in European media in the mid- to late-1980s, most notably in Kenneth Timmerman’s work for the Paris-based newsletter Med-News and in Alan Friedman’s articles for the Financial Times of London, as well as in Germany’s Der Spiegel and on the British Broadcasting Corp. program “Panorama.”
In August, 1989--17 months before the Gulf War--Friedman began writing about the role of the Atlanta branch of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro in the financing of unauthorized military and high-technology exports to Iraq. Safire wrote his first Iraqgate column in the New York Times four months later, and a month after that--still two months before the war--Waas wrote about Iraqgate in considerable detail in the Village Voice, under the title “What We Gave Saddam for Christmas: The Secret History of How the United States and Its Allies Armed Iraq.”
Three weeks before the war, Frantz began a story in the Los Angeles Times with these words:
“If U.S. troops go to war against Iraq, the deadliest weapon unleashed on them by Saddam Hussein’s forces could be stamped ‘Made in America.’ ”
The story told how a U.S. company had “provided agents for Iraq with technology for developing fuel air explosives, devices 10 times more powerful than conventional weapons.”
But before the Gulf War, the essential, realpolitik rationale for U.S. aid to Iraq was pretty generally accepted: Iraq was engaged in a war with Iran, and Iran--especially after the hostage crisis--was our enemy. The Arab proverb--"The enemy of my enemy is my friend"--seemed exquisitely appropriate at the time, and that made Iraq our friend. So, of course, we helped Iraq.
Waas, in fact, is the co-author (with Craig Unger) of a story in the current New Yorker alleging that, on a trip to the Mideast in 1986, then-Vice President Bush asked King Hussein of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to urge Hussein to begin bombing deep inside Iran.
Although documents subsequently showed that secret and allegedly illegal U.S. aid to Iraq continued long after the Iraq-Iran war ended in August, 1988, most Americans--preoccupied with other problems, disgruntled by post-Watergate media assaults on the White House--just didn’t seem to care.
The Bush Administration argued that its aid to Iraq--much of it originally masked as agricultural aid--was an attempt to lure Hussein into the “family of nations.” Critics said Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait showed how foolhardy that strategy had been. But the public wasn’t terribly interested.
In February, 1991, Los Angeles Times reporters William C. Rempel and Henry Weinstein wrote a lengthy, Page 1 story disclosing that from 1985 to 1990, the U.S. Commerce Department had approved the export to Iraq of $1.5 billion in exports of U.S. high technology “and other equipment with potential military uses.”
Three months later, ABC’s “Nightline” broadcast a report charging that funds made available by the Atlanta branch of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro had been used to finance “raw materials for chemical weapons . . . computers for military use . . . solid fuel for rocket propellant and shell casings,” in the words of an Iraqi opposition adviser.
“Nightline” broadcast other Iraqgate stories, but there was no nationwide outpouring of indignation after their stories either, and the story quickly faded from most media radar screens.
But Waas had spent several months working on his Voice story and he spent several more months investigating it before he came to the Los Angeles Times with his documents, initial findings and rough drafts of several possible stories. He and Frantz then worked together for about two months before their first stories came out.
Waas’ early work gave The Times a big head start on everyone else with the then-secret documents. That made it difficult for other news organizations to advance the story with their own enterprise reporting.
Some papers reprinted the original Los Angeles Times stories. The Philadelphia Inquirer played a half-dozen of them on its Page 1--sometimes more prominently than The Times played those stories--and the Inquirer also published many others elsewhere in the paper. The Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle, among others, also reported The Times’ findings.
A few other media followed The Times with their own stories. The same day the third Times story ran, the Houston Chronicle published a Page 1 story based largely on Rep. Gonzalez’s documents.
CNN did relatively early stories based on the Los Angeles Times stories, and within a few months after those stories began, “Nightline” did two more programs on Iraqgate, and CBS’ “60 Minutes"--in the course of a critical profile of Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state--examined Kissinger’s relations with Banca Nazionale del Lavoro and BNL’s role in Iraqgate. At about the same time, NBC’s “Sunday Today” broadcast two stories on Iraqgate.
Time magazine published a two-page story on Iraqgate in June and a three-page story last week. The New Republic ran a six-page cover story in June. U.S. News & World Report ran an eight-page cover story in May--which, for the first time, gave the scandal a name, Iraqgate--then came back with a seven-page story last week.
Catchy names are important, especially on complex issues, but even a catchy name and the attention, however briefly, of all those big-name print and electronic media couldn’t breathe life into the Iraqgate story for the average reader and viewer or for the majority of the rest of the media.
Some news organizations had already carried brief stories nibbling around the edges of Iraqgate and--figuring “we’ve already had that"--ignored the new disclosures, a common syndrome in the American media. More important--most important of all in the opinion of many--neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post moved quickly on Iraqgate.
“That’s sort of been my frustration over the years,” says Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. “If both the New York Times and the Washington Post choose to ignore a story . . . it usually just lies there. . . . It doesn’t get much play.”
Leonard Downie, executive editor of the Post, concedes that his paper was “slow in getting up to speed on that story, in part because it’s the kind of story involving careful work with documents. . . . Once you’re behind, it takes a long while to catch up.”
Although the Post published a two-part, Page 1 series in September, 1990, on contributions by the United States and other Western nations to Iraq’s military might, the Post didn’t publish its first Page 1 story on Iraqgate until almost five weeks after the first Los Angeles Times story; the Post put only two more Iraqgate stories on Page 1 in the next four months.
“It was good that the Los Angeles Times paved the way,” Downie says. Times’ stories and the work of a few members of Congress “are the reasons why we began pursuing it after really not noticing it at the outset.”
The Post has since been “working hard to catch up,” and in early August, Downie said, “we’re now in the ballgame.”
But Nelson says there’s an explanation other than his own paper’s head start for the failure of the Washington Post (and the New York Times) to follow up immediately on the Los Angeles Times stories.
“Why do they ignore it? Because they didn’t break the story,” he says. “If they didn’t break it, it’s not news.”
Editors at the Post and the New York Times deny that they ignored Iraqgate because major stories appeared in the Los Angeles Times first.
Howell Raines, Washington editor for the New York Times, calls that charge a “paranoia-tinged conspiracy theory.”
“Jack’s a friend of mine, but with respect, I’ve got to decline to buy into that theory,” Raines says, and he points out--accurately--that the Los Angeles Times initially gave short shrift to the stories Elaine Sciolino has recently broken in the New York Times on Iraqgate.
The New York Times had published its first story on the Banca Nazionale de Lavoro and prewar aid to Iraq in mid-1990, 20 months before the Los Angeles Times series began. But that story was a relatively brief report on an ongoing Justice Department investigation of the bank, and it was placed on Page 12; several other, longer stories on Iraqgate were subsequently published, mostly in the paper’s business section (where similar stories appeared in several other papers, including the Los Angeles Times).
Newspaper editors around the country see what the New York Times puts (and doesn’t put) on Page 1 every day, and while many of them deny it, that often influences their decisions about what to put on their own front pages. On Iraqgate, the New York Times--like the Washington Post--didn’t put a story on Page 1 until almost five weeks after the first Waas/Frantz story appeared on Page 1 of the Los Angeles Times. Another five weeks passed before a second Iraqgate story appeared on Page 1 of the New York Times, and two more months passed before a third was published.
“The L.A. Times did a very good job of exploring (Iraqgate) . . . and ran stories early this year that many of us respected and would have liked to have had in our paper first,” Raines says. “But the fact is we all have very limited investigative resources, and the economics of journalism is such that most of the time (when editors ) . . . . see someone has thoroughly plowed a field, (they) . . . try to put their resources into a new area.”
Joseph Lelyveld, managing editor of the New York Times, said in August that his paper was “definitely on” the story then, and indeed the New York Times broke new ground on Iraqgate this month and on several occasions has given more prominent play to Iraqgate developments than has the Los Angeles Times. But Lelyveld insisted that even at the New York Times--"a big paper . . . with many many talented people--you can’t have, as a practical matter, eight large investigative teams out there working major stories that may take weeks and months and do justice to the flow of news” as well.
A newspaper that tries to do all this, Lelyveld said, runs the risk of being “whipsawed, jumping from one story to the other, a little late on each and staying not long enough on any, playing catch-up ball with people who are committing larger resources” to each story.
Instead, Lelyveld says, many newspapers prefer to “take targets of opportunity"--which can be loosely translated as “stories that other media haven’t already staked out.”
Lelyveld made this comment while discussing media coverage of the savings and loan scandal, but it applies equally to Iraqgate and to virtually every other big story of recent years. Frank Mankiewicz calls it the “Watergate syndrome,” so named because most of the media took so long to follow the lead of the Washington Post in covering that scandal.
Mankiewicz, former press secretary to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and now a corporate public relations consultant in Washington, says that when “one newspaper has a clear lock on the story, the others tend to stay away because they don’t want to begin a story saying: ‘The Los Angeles Times reported . . . ' (or) ‘According to the Washington Post . . .’ ”
For the Los Angeles Times, that’s a special problem of longstanding concern.
Albert Hunt, Washington bureau chief for the Wall St. Journal, says it’s “a fact of life--you can look at what’s read in this town, and there’s a pecking order, and the L.A. Times is probably a very distant fourth or fifth among newspapers.”
Times editors and reporters are acutely aware of this handicap, and they have tried to address it: In 1974, they began flying an early edition of The Times to Washington every night so it would be available for key government officials early the next morning; early this year, despite extraordinary budgetary constraints and cutbacks occasioned by the deteriorating local and national economy, The Times created a separate Washington edition that’s transmitted across country by satellite for distribution every Monday through Friday.
But satellite or not, Safire says, “in terms of setting the national agenda . . . out-of-town papers don’t have the impact that the (New York) Times and, secondarily, the (Washington) Post . . . and to some degree, the Wall Street Journal . . . and the AP have.”
Safire himself is one of the major agenda-setters in Washington, though, and not even he has been able to turn Iraqgate into a Big Event.
Republicans have consistently dismissed the Iraqgate charges as election-year politics designed to embarrass Bush, and they have said that those behind the Iraqgate stories are simply disgruntled critics of the President’s Gulf War policy--"a bunch of people who were wrong on the war trying to cover their necks . . . and . . . do a little revisionism,” in President Bush’s words during the final presidential debate.
But that description doesn’t fit Safire, a well-credentialed conservative who worked for President Nixon and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew before becoming a columnist, and who strongly supported the President’s decision to use military force to drive Hussein out of Kuwait.
Safire, one of the most respected and influential columnists in Washington, has been critical of President Bush on various policies, though, and he has written more than a dozen columns on Iraqgate. One of the earliest and most aggressive mainstream critics of Iraqgate, he has accused the Bush Administration of being “corrupt” and of “a colossal foreign policy blunder . . . fraudulent use of public funds . . . lying to Congress . . . a cover-up . . . obstruction of justice.”
Safire has called Atty. Gen. Barr the “cover-up general,” and this month, Safire wrote of Barr: “Never before in the history of the Republic, in my opinion, has the nation’s chief law enforcement officer been in such flagrant and sustained violation of the law.”
Some Washington journalists say Safire’s columns embarrassed the New York Times into finally giving the story more prominent attention on its news pages. Others--including writer Waas--say that without Safire’s columns, Congress might not have asked for the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Safire’s columns had a “tremendous” impact, Waas says.
But Barr rejected the call for an independent special prosecutor anyway--Safire, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, “Nightline” and all the other media notwithstanding.
“It could be that I’m not as powerful as I like to think,” Safire says, with a laugh.
The Los Angeles Times has continued to hammer away at Iraqgate. The paper has published more than 40 stories on it since Barr announced his decision--12 of them on Page 1--with Ronald J. Ostrow, who covers the Justice Department for The Times, replacing Waas as Frantz’s partner on most recent stories involving controversies between that agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In recent weeks, some other news organizations--most notably the New York Times--have begun to cover Iraqgate much more aggressively.
The New York Times disclosed this month that CIA officials had accused the Justice Department of urging them to “withhold information from federal prosecutors” about the $5.5-billion bank fraud involving Iraq and the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro. The New York Times and Washington Post gave prominent play to this issue, including follow-up stories on the role of the CIA, Justice Department and FBI in Iraqgate investigations. The New York Times made this its lead story on Page 1 two days in a row. The Wall Street Journal also published a lengthy, Page 1 examination of the issue this month.
In the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, Clinton and Sen. Al Gore, the Democratic presidential and vice presidential contenders, have begun chipping away at President Bush on it as well, and a federal judge criticized the government’s handling of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro case.
It is a measure of the impact of the New York Times that after its prominently played disclosures, the FBI and the Justice Department both launched investigations, and Barr named a retired federal judge to serve as a special prosecutor--although not the “independent,” judicially appointed special prosecutor that Congress wanted--to probe the Administration’s handling of Iraqgate.
An Oct. 13 Los Angeles Times story said that Iraqgate was finally “emerging as a potential weak spot” for Bush, but the story introduced no information to suggest that voters are any more interested than they have been since the earliest stories on the issue. Iraqgate wasn’t even mentioned by any of the candidates or reporters in the first presidential debate or in the vice presidential debate. When moderator Carole Simpson gave Clinton an open-ended opportunity to comment on it in the second debate, he brushed her aside without comment, and no one in the audience mentioned it either. Only in the third debate was there an exchange on Iraqgate.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last week said that 68% of registered voters had “major doubts” about having Bush as President when asked to “just consider” his explanation for “aiding Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War.” But Rich Jaroslovsky, political editor of the Journal, says the poll suggests to him that Iraqgate is not an issue that’s “driving voters’ decisions,” and another story in the Journal--on why Bush is faring so poorly in this campaign--didn’t even mention Iraqgate as a factor.
So what happens next?
Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has called for the appointment of an independent, judicially appointed special prosecutor to investigate the case, and--as Waas says--Boren has more standing and credibility in many quarters than Gonzalez. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee echoed Boren’s call last week.
“If Clinton wins,” Safire says, “he has told me he would support the appointment of a special prosecutor in this case.”
That could change the situation dramatically. Vigorous presidential support--by any President, on virtually any issue--is the one thing that almost guarantees a story will have impact.
After all, as Herbert Gans, a sociologist at Columbia University, puts it:
“If the President scratches his behind, there he is on Page 1 because he’s the President.”
Peter Johnson of The Times editorial library assisted with the research for this series.
Case Study: What They Said About the Iraqgate Scandal
WILLIAM SAFIRE, New York Times
The early Los Angeles Times stories on Iraqgate did not meet what Safire calls “the gas-filled room requirement. If you strike a match in a room that is not filled with gas,” he says, you don’t get an explosion; “all you get is one candlepower worth of publicity.” On Iraqgate, he says, the Los Angeles Times stories were “excellent . . . (but) the room was not filled with gas, although some of us were doing our best to pump it in from the very beginning.”
DOUGLAS FRANTZ, Los Angeles Times Washington bureau
“All the important characters are Americans, and they’re figures who are involved at the highest levels of government.”
ROGER FRANSECKY, psychologist
“Americans don’t have a sense of history. Americans today are like people speeding down the highway in a car with the rear window blacked out. What they remember (about Iraq) is the three guys (CNN correspondents) standing in the hotel room in Baghdad” as the bombs and missiles fell. They don’t much care about what got us involved with Iraq to begin with.
MICHAEL KINSLEY, columnist
Iraqgate and critical analysis of the war itself “complicate what was a very simple story. . . . We were mad at Hussein. We went to war. We won.”
JACK NELSON, Washington bureau chief, Los Angeles Times
“That’s sort of been my frustration over the years. . . . If both the New York Times and the Washington Post choose to ignore a story . . . it usually just lies there. . . . It doesn’t get much play. . . . “
HOWELL RAINES, editorial page editor, New York Times
“The L.A. Times did a very good job of exploring (Iraqgate ) . . . and ran stories early this year that many of us respected and would have liked to have had in our paper first. But the fact is we all have very limited investigative resources, and the economics of journalism is such that most of the time (when editors ) . . . . see someone has thoroughly plowed a field, (they) . . . try to put their resources into a new area.”
RICHARD SMITH, editor in chief, Newsweek
The “post-Watergate mood of . . . official Washington” is that the special prosecutor in the Iran-Contra scandal “was not turning up bombshell revelations and I suspect that the attitude (on Iraqgate) was, ‘Do we want to go through this all over again?’ There’s a weariness in Washington about special prosecutors and investigations in general.”
FRANK MANKIEWICZ, former press secretary to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy
When “one newspaper has a clear lock on the story, the others tend to stay away because they don’t want to begin a story saying, ‘The Los Angeles Times reported . . . ' (or) ‘According to the Washington Post. . . . ‘ “