How and Why We Should All Be Like the Late Journalistic Giant Robert Parry

Robert Parry was one of the most talented reporters of the past 50 years — but, as he would modestly say, any curious human being could do what he did.

Nieman Foundation, I.F. Stone Award, October 22, 2015, Awardee Robert Parry presented by Bill Kovach.
Nieman Foundation, I.F. Stone Award, October 22, 2015, Awardee Robert Parry presented by Bill Kovach. Photo: Lisa Abitbol/Nieman Foundation for Journalism

Robert Parry, the editor of Consortium News, died unexpectedly on January 27 at age 68.

His work inspired generations of journalists, but it’s possible you’ve rarely encountered his writing, or have simply never heard of him. So here are three amazing things about him:

First, Parry was one of the greatest American investigative reporters of the past 50 years, on par with Seymour Hersh. While he is best known for breaking the Nicaraguan side of the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration, that was but one gumball in the giant gumball machine of political malfeasance Parry uncovered during his career. (He won the prestigious George Polk Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work on Iran-Contra.) If you don’t read his books and website, you’ll always have a distorted view of recent U.S. history.

Second, precisely because he was so good, he was forced to the margins of the U.S. media — so far out that he had to start Consortium News in 1995 and depend on reader donations. His fate is especially educational because he was so nonideological. Unlike, say, I.F. Stone, he wasn’t a socialist or radical. He just had basic, Boy Scout-like principles, such as “reality is important” and “the government shouldn’t lie all the time about everything.” Yet this was enough to make it impossible for him to work for his former employers like the Associated Press and Newsweek, which he said had tried to suppress his most explosive investigations that held the powerful to account.

Third, despite the impression his journalism sometimes gave off, he didn’t have superpowers. As he would modestly say, any committed, curious human being could do what he did. (What he wouldn’t mention is that becoming as good as he was requires working extremely hard, every day, for your entire life.)

Here are what I believe to be the secrets of Parry’s success. As you’ll see, anyone can follow his lead, “professional” reporters or not.

Read everything

America is, at least if graded on a curve with other countries, an incredibly open society. The truth is actually out there, and all you need to find most of it is an internet connection and a library card. Parry made full use of both.

He assiduously read other reporters’ work in order to build on it. (You can see “State of War” by The Intercept’s James Risen on Parry’s bookshelf in a photograph here.) He read politicians’ dreary memoirs — which you know, if you’ve ever tried to do it yourself, is truly taking one for the team — because he understood that in retirement, powerful people occasionally blurt out stunning new information.

He read the voluminous reports that the government produces when forced to address scandals, and he read them from beginning to end. Most reporters just skim the executive summaries, which are always written to be as exculpatory as possible. But Parry knew that the body of these reports is often filled with revelations that blatantly contradict the headline.

Take, for example, the CIA’s 1,000-page report on Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, which revealed that Saddam Hussein was not burning with the desire to kill Americans. On the contrary, during the Clinton administration, Saddam repeatedly begged the United States to be his buddy again, claiming he could be America’s “best friend in the region bar none.”

This nugget is just sitting there for anyone to read on the CIA’s website, yet it has gotten almost no play in U.S. media. It has literally never appeared in the New York Times and appears to never have been referenced on American television. (The Washington Post mentioned it once in 2004, in the second-to-last paragraph of a story buried in the back of the paper.)


Robert Parry with AP’s then-executive editor Louis Boccardi, receiving the George Polk Award for National Reporting, 1984 .

Photo: Consortiumnews

Always include the history

You may remember that the Party in George Orwell’s “1984” had a slogan: “Who controls the past controls the future: Who controls the present controls the past.” Or as the Czech novelist Milan Kundera put it, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

These are more than nifty aphorisms; they’re at the core of how every country runs. “History” is continually being rewritten on the fly by the people in charge, to a truly unnerving degree.

Parry understood this profoundly: One of his books was called “Lost History,”  and another was titled “America’s Stolen Narrative.” He knew that conventional journalism, which continually presents its audience with fragmentary new information, simply doesn’t work. Human beings comprehend the world through stories, and new information that contradicts the story they already have in their heads will just bounce right off. So whenever Parry reported new facts, he always provided an extensive backstory that explained why these facts were both believable and significant. The stories he told were always more complex and challenging than the official history, but they had the advantage of being true.

If you doubt the significance of the preexisting narrative in readers’ heads, consider the current coverage of sexual harassment and assault: It’s one of the few recent examples of journalism that’s had an explosive impact and the potential to truly change society. It’s also a subject half the world’s population already knew was true.

Repeat yourself repetitively, over and over

The political consultant Frank Luntz has been paid millions of dollars by the Republican Party and huge corporations to help them communicate effectively. In his book, “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” Luntz recommends “Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. … You may be making yourself sick by saying the exact same thing for the umpteenth time [but] the overwhelming majority of your customers or constituents aren’t paying as much attention as you are.”

Yet repetition is exactly what journalists are told to avoid. It’s called “the news,” after all, not “the olds.” Editors hate reporting on something if another outlet has already done so, or if their publication has said something similar before.

Parry rejected this. He returned to the same subjects over and over, approaching them repeatedly from different angles. He realized that novelty is thrilling for reporters, but is actually the opposite of what readers need in order to understand what you’re talking about. “Finding a good message and then sticking with it takes extraordinary discipline,” Luntz says in his book, “but it pays off tenfold in the end.” Parry had that extraordinary discipline. Notably, this is the same discipline that the most effective progressive communicators, such as Noam Chomsky and the economist Dean Baker, also possess.

So what specifically did Parry uncover with these methods? Here’s a limited sampling of his most startling tales.

The Reagan administration protected cocaine traffickers

Even today this is often seen as a nutty conspiracy theory. It’s not.

In 1985, Parry, along with with Brian Barger at the AP, were the first to report that the Nicaraguan Contras were being funded with the proceeds from cocaine sales in the U.S. Parry kept working on the story for the rest of his life.

The Contra-cocaine connection has now been documented extensively by various government investigations. At the request of CIA Director William Casey in 1982, the Department of Justice lifted requirements that the agency report any assets that were engaging in drug smuggling. Oliver North, then on the National Security Council, wrote in his diary that millions of dollars of Contra funding came from cocaine sales. The U.S. government intervened to prevent the Contra’s cocaine connections from suffering legal consequences.

Richard Nixon conspired to keep the Vietnam War going

When Nixon was campaigning against Hubert Humphrey in 1968, he worried that Lyndon Johnson was about to sign a peace accord ending the Vietnam War, which would have boosted Humphrey’s chances. So Nixon set up secret channels to the South Vietnamese government in order to encourage them to stop this from happening. Nixon succeeded in lengthening the war by years, costing the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and more than 1 million people across Indochina.

For decades in Washington, it was disreputable to believe this. But Parry kept digging, publishing a secret memo written by Johnson’s top aide Walt Rostow about the government’s conclusive documentation that Nixon had done it. Parry also reported on evidence that Nixon had tipped off a friendly Wall Street banker that he was blocking the peace deal, allowing the banker and his friends to make bets profiting off this inside information.

It’s since been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that Nixon did, in fact, trade towering piles of corpses for a better shot at being elected.

The 1980 Reagan campaign almost certainly conspired with Iran

Parry spent years chasing the so-called October Surprise story and could never completely nail it. But the circumstantial evidence he found that the Reagan campaign had conspired with Iran to keep its American hostages until after the election is extremely convincing.

Most intriguingly, in 1994, in a secluded Capitol bathroom being used for storage, Parry stumbled across classified documents from the government’s October Surprise investigation. In it, he found a six-page report sent to the U.S. from Russia. The report said that in 1980, Soviet intelligence had tracked William Casey (then Reagan’s campaign chair) and George H.W. Bush (Reagan’s running mate) as they met with Iranian representatives several times in Europe.

With U.S.-Russia relations now at a nadir, it’s hard to remember that Russia back then was extremely anxious to stay in America’s good graces. It’s difficult to imagine what motive the Russians would have had to deceive us. Parry reported that a European diplomat told him the Russian government saw its report as “a bomb” and “couldn’t believe it was ignored.”

Jimmy Carter may have given Saddam Hussein permission to invade Iran

In the same classified October Surprise documents, Parry found a top-secret 1981 memo from Secretary of State Al Haig to Ronald Reagan. Haig had just taken his first trip to the Middle East and told Reagan that it was “interesting to confirm that President Carter gave the Iraqis a green light to launch the war against Iran through [Saudi Prince] Fahd.”

This isn’t proof that Carter did this; it’s just proof that Haig claimed that the Saudis claimed it had happened. However, Saddam did visit Saudi Arabia on August 5, 1980 and ordered the invasion of Iran the next month. Parry also pointed out that, when the government officially declassified the Haig memo in 2015, only two of the nine paragraphs were redacted, including the one with Haig’s statement about Carter.

We also know one person who apparently reads Parry’s work and takes this seriously: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In a famous 2009 speech at the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, Khamenei said that America “showed Saddam a green light. … If Saddam did not have the green light from the Americans, he would have not attacked our borders. They imposed eight years of war on our country. About 300,000 of … our people were martyred.”

Top Democrats allowed Republicans to get away with everything

Lyndon Johnson knew what Nixon was doing in 1968 because of FBI surveillance. Yet, as Parry pointed out, Johnson and his advisers decided they should not reveal the truth. As Johnson’s Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford told him just before the election, “Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story. … It could cast [a possible Nixon] administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.” Then, in 1973, Walt Rostow took the documentation of Nixon’s actions in his possession and gave it to the LBJ Presidential Library — with instructions to not look at it for 50 years. (They eventually did after just 20.)

When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, three significant investigations into the Reagan and Bush administrations were taking place: the October Surprise, Reagan’s arming of Iraq during its war with Iran, and Iran-Contra. Clinton allowed all of them to peter out. Why? Because, as he later told a White House guest, he wanted to work with Republicans in Congress and compromise. They responded to Clinton’s unilateral surrender by impeaching him.

Similarly, Yasser Arafat, the former chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told Carter in a 1996 meeting that the 1980 Reagan campaign had promised to send arms to the PLO if Arafat convinced Iran to keep the hostages until after the election. Carter put up his hands, signaling he didn’t want to hear about it.

Those revelations are just the start of the phenomenal, alarming, and stupefying information you can find in Parry’s books and on Consortium News. As with any source, you should read his work carefully and skeptically; he wouldn’t want it any other way. I personally disagree with some — not all — of his recent writing about Syria and potential Donald Trump-Russia collusion. But if you don’t familiarize yourself with his writing, you will have absolutely no idea what’s going on.

The universe is darker and colder without Robert Parry. But he left us detailed instructions on how to build as big a fire as we want. If we’d like to have decent lives in a functional country, he would strongly encourage all of us to get to work on that right now.

Top photo: Robert Parry was presented an I.F. Stone Award by Bill Kovach, Oct. 22, 2015.

Join The Conversation