Thursday, August 11, 2016

Will the media follow up the Iran payment story?

The Wall Street Journal story that the administration sent $400 million in cash to Iran will be a test of whether the US media are fair in dealing with similar scandals involving dealings with Iran.
Most people alive at the time recall the enormous press reaction to the news that President Reagan allegedly traded arms for hostages in dealings with Iran. Reagan believed, and there was significant documentary evidence (ignored by the media), that the principal purpose of the exchange was to open an avenue of discourse with Iran — which at that point was governed by the same hostile regime that governs it today. Nevertheless, the exchange was covered uniformly in the media as an “arms-for-hostages” scandal. I was White House Counsel at the time the story broke, just after the 1986 elections, and was largely in charge of handling the fallout.
John Kerry with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Manhattan, New York City, April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid.
John Kerry with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Manhattan, New York City, April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid.
As an indication of the media reaction, between the time that exchange became known, in early November 1986, and the end of January 1987 (when I stopped counting), there were 555 separate stories in the Washington Post and 509 in the New York Times.  Even Watergate cannot match this outpouring of media interest. The overwhelming number of these stories discussed the exchange as a mistaken policy in which the US had opened itself to paying ransom for hostages.



To be sure, there was more to the Reagan exchange with Iran than simply this policy question. There was also a question, ultimately shown to be groundless, of whether President Reagan was aware that the cash proceeds from the arms sales were sent to the Contras, a force opposing the Communist government in Nicaragua. Since there was never any significant evidence to support this suspicion, relatively few of the articles focused on this question. Instead, they covered various aspects of the arms-for-hostages allegation, particularly the fact that the US had endangered Americans everywhere by paying ransom.
The Wall Street Journal has had the story as the lead on its front pages for two days. On Thursday, the New York Times has the story on page 7.
Now we have a similar story involving the Obama administration. The Wall Street Journal has had the story as the lead on its front pages for two days. On Thursday, the New York Times has the story on page 7 and pays a lot of attention to the administration’s argument that the payment and the release of four American hostages in Iran was purely a coincidence.
Whether there was actually a payment of ransom by the Obama administration is not the interesting issue at this point. Even if it was a good faith exchange, it was an obvious “optics” problem, recognized by the Justice Department, which was overruled by the State Department. There’s a lot more to know before a conclusion can be drawn whether it was a ransom payment or a public relations blunder. Congressional hearings will probably throw some light on this.
But the interesting question is whether and how the US media will follow up. Given the similarity between the two events, will there be the same outpouring of interest that we saw in what came to be known as the Iran-Contra scandal, or will the story die in a few days because of a lack of media interest? Thus far, the media outrage and sanctimony that greeted the story about President Reagan’s dealings with Iran are not apparent.
Peter J. Wallison is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His book, Ronald Reagan: The Power of Conviction and the Success of His Presidency (Westview 2003) recounts how the Iran-Contra scandal was handled in the White House and the media.