BROOKE GLADSTONE: The need for control was paramount during the Reagan years. Its policy in Central America to obstruct or prevent Socialist governments was risky, to say the least. Without careful media management, what we now call the Iran-Contra Scandal could have brought down the administration. Eager to support the efforts of the Nicaraguan Contra rebels to bring down the Sandinista government, in the mid-80s, the White House illegally traded arms to Iran and secretly funneled the proceeds to the Contras. Meanwhile, in El Salvador, in December of 1981, American-trained counter-insurgency fighters systematically exterminated hundreds of civilians in the village of El Mozote. The following month, the New York Times' Ray Bonner reported that in fact between 733 and 926 men, women and children had been slaughtered. The Reagan administration conducted an independent investigation and declared that no massacre had taken place. Bonner was tarred as a left wing sympathizer, his stories dismissed, and he was re-assigned to a lesser beat at the Times. Eventually he left the paper altogether. Reporter Bob Parry worked for the Associated Press and Newsweek at the time, and he says the Reagan administration had a hand in Bonner's fate.
BOB PARRY: These were the years after Watergate, after the fall of Saigon, after the scandals in - at the CIA, so they were very much attentive to any reporting that they felt might cause similar problems in the future, and Ray Bonner became the first example of what happens to a reporter who was crossing the Reagan administration on issues like this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And there were others?
BOB PARRY: Sure. There were lots of others. One thing that the Reagan administration did was it created a, a new office at the State Department given the name Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America. It was run by Otto Reich. And it systematically went around Washington trying to discredit reporters who were seen as writing in ways that were causing problems for these policies. They, there was one case with National Public Radio where NPR had done a broadcast relating to a massacre that the Nicaraguan Contra rebels, who were of course backed by the Reagan administration, had committed in Nicaragua, and NPR had actually just covered the funeral of many of these farm workers who had been killed, and that provoked Otto Reich to go to the offices of NPR to try to put pressure on the editors and reporters involved in that case. So there were repeated trips to people's bureau's chiefs and people's editors. The effort was to get reporters re-assigned, and they had great success.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're cited as being one of the first journalists to report on the drug angle of the Iran-Contra scandal. Were you, yourself, discredited after you published critical stories?
BOB PARRY: Well, we certainly came under a great deal of pressure. I was at the Associated Press at the time, and we were not particularly liked by the Reagan administration for writing about some of that dark underbelly of the Contra operation. I must s ay that we were able to battle through most of the stories. Some were delayed. Some were watered down somewhat, but it didn't exactly help our relations with our editors, so you pay a price. You pay a price, even when you turn out to be right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a 1992 Washington Monthly article you wrote that the director of the CIA, William Casey, teamed up with a bunch of Madison Avenue advertising execs to sell the Contras to the American people, and one of the stated aims of the group was to, quote, "glue black hats on the Sandinistas and white hats on the Contras." Was the campaign effective in the end?
BOB PARRY: The campaign was effective. The administration was able to push back against the Washington and national press corps. Many of the problems of the Contras were not examined very significantly. The stories about the Contra drug trafficking were pretty much rejected by much of the press corps. It took, really, another 13 years until the CIA put out a report that the Inspector General had done which confirmed much of the information that we had reported back in the mid-1980s. It was just a case that there wasn't much career advantage for Washington journalists reporting tough, critical stories about the Contras or about the U.S. policies that were being carried out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you getting a sense of deja vu?
BOB PARRY: Well, I think the second Bush administration also has been very aggressive in many of the same ways that the Reagan administration was -- keeping a lot of things under wraps. For quite a while, the Congress has not done much in terms of oversight or investigative efforts, and the press corps, with the exception of I think what's happened the last several months, has been fairly tame. And so you have similar situations where there's a president who's been able to avoid much of the scrutiny that predecessors had. In the case of Reagan, the predecessors like Nixon or Ford -- their administrations coming under a great deal of scrutiny and, and of course Clinton coming under a great deal of scrutiny in the 1990s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who would you say plays Mike Deaver in the current administration?
BOB PARRY: Who has the role of Deaver? Possibly Karl Rove, [LAUGHTER] who, who has a very strong oversight of, of everything at the White House, especially their public image.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Thank you very much.
BOB PARRY: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bob Parry, formerly of the AP and Newsweek, is the editor of ConsortiumNews.com. [MUSIC]