No October Surprise

By Emerson, Steven | American Journalism Review, March 1993 | Go to article overview

No October Surprise


Emerson, Steven, American Journalism Review


An op-ed column in the New York Times called it "a political coup." A nationally syndicated columnist said it "is without parallel in the annals of campaign evil." A top network news anchor said, "If true, it would be an act of political treachery bordering on treason." And a former president of the United States said, "It's almost nauseating that [it] could be true."

"It" was the so-called "October Surprise" conspiracy, the allegation that in 1980 Ronald Reagan's campaign staff had secretly conspired with Iran to delay the release of 52 American hostages until after the election in exchange for future weapons sales. The alleged agreement, say the conspiracy theory's supporters, helped prevent President Jimmy Carter from winning the election.

Over the past five years, the October Surprise has become the hottest conspiracy theory in Washington. From the beginning of 1991 through last year, the story was the subject of two PBS "Frontline" documentaries, four ABC "Nightline" shows, two books, more than 20 editorials and opinion pieces in the New York Times alone, three "Donahue" shows, and thousands of articles, columns and commentaries across the country.

The sheer weight of the coverage, and the unanswered questions it raised, prompted Congress to investigate. In December 1991, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hired an outside counsel. In February 1992, the House of Representatives launched a much more comprehensive probe, appointing a task force of 13 members and 16 lawyers and investigators to examine the allegations.

Last November, the Senate's limited investigation found no evidence of a conspiracy. Its findings were corroborated in mid-January, when the House task force released a phone book-sized report in which it concluded there was "no credible evidence" to support any of the principal allegations. In the words of one senior investigator, "The conspiracy was a hoax."

Specifically, the task force concluded that:

* Nearly all of the sources cited by proponents of the theory were wholesale fabricators" or "impeached by documentary evidence."

* None of the meetings in Paris, Madrid, New York or other locations at which Reagan campaign director William Casey - the linchpin of the theory - was alleged to have met with Iranians occurred.

* None of the alleged Israeli or U.S. arms sales to Iran, supposedly promised by the Reagan campaign in return for delaying the release of the hostages, took place. The investigation found no evidence of a quid pro quo.

Aside from debunking the conspiracy, the evidence amassed by the task force laid out in embarrassing detail how the October Surprise myth was created, sustained and enhanced almost entirely by the news media's uncritical acceptance of allegations made by less-than-credible sources.

What makes the fiasco so damning is that the evidence shows that many journalists were not merely duped by bad sources - an occupational hazard for any reporter - but that some reporters, editorial writers and news organizations ignored contradictory evidence, relied on sources without any corroboration and, in some cases, did not report available evidence that showed their sources were lying.

Once unleashed, the October Surprise spread like a computer virus from one news organization to another. As sources refined, embellished and expanded their tales, journalists became the principal conduit by which disinformation flowed to other sources, who in turn confirmed fabricated allegations. "The October Surprise," says journalist Frank Snepp, a former CIA agent, "turned out to be the product of a daisy chain in which journalists peddled misinformation from source to source."

Moreover, the prevailing conspiratorial bias held by many in the news media helped ensure that there would be more stories affirming the conspiracy than those attempting to discredit it. Several network correspondents and producers, who asked not to be identified, say they were able to prevent some pro-October Surprise stories from airing but were blocked from airing stories debunking the allegations. …

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