“I think cynicism has gotten a bad name.” That’s what Timesman Howell Raines told me in the summer of 1996, when I found myself in his inner sanctum on 43rd Street looking for a job. He was editorial page editor at the time, and we were sitting off to one side of his office in a small lair with a plush couch, framed mementos, and a bar. He made it clear right away that I lacked the daily experience that was a prerequisite for legal reporters, and then we talked about the increasingly conservative mood at Yale Law School, where I had spent the previous year on a fellowship.
“The great thing about Yale,” I piped up, “is that everyone is so idealistic there.” Big mistake. Raines had been friendly so far, professionally courteous, but now a shadow fell across his face as he confessed his contempt for idealism. Indeed, he felt it had so demeaned reportage that he was considering writing a piece in defense of cynicism.
Shifting gears as fast as possible, I asked if he had heard George Bernard Shaw’s quip, “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.” This brought a smile to his face, and he later asked if I could provide a citation. Unfortunately, I could not—it was just something I had heard and remembered—but today it only takes a quick search of Google.com to find many sources for Shaw’s remark.
I was reminded of Raines’s cynical streak last week when he was named the new executive editor of the Times, setting off squawks among Times watchers. Because in my current incarnation I’m obsessed with coverage of Latin America, I started asking around about the fate of foreign editor Andrew Rosenthal. According to one source at the Times, Rosenthal is tight with Raines and may even be a dark horse candidate as Raines’s choice for managing editor. (The front-runner appears to be Gerald Boyd.)
Because Raines worked previously as D.C. bureau chief and is steeped in domestic politics, some have predicted he will reduce foreign coverage. That forecast was instantly countered with spin: Times chronicler Alex S. Jones told the Daily News that Raines won’t give “short shrift” to foreign, while The New York Observer had insiders saying it’s “irrational” to think Raines will reduce foreign coverage. “How can you fuck up international?” asked my source.
Um, Mr. Raines? This may sound idealistic, but I was hoping you could make the Times coverage of Latin America more cynical. Instead of publishing stories coated with pro-government PR, I wish you’d order your reporters to question the authorities and get more scoops. If they need a primer, have them read my friend Jason Vest’s Nation story posted on the Internet May 24, disclosing the details of the State Department’s contract with DynCorp, which supplies mercenaries for the drug war. Vest notes that DynCorp employees are forbidden to discuss their work, adding, “It’s not hard to see why.”
Not only is DynCorp’s Andean presence “far more expansive . . . than previously reported,” according to Vest, but it presents “a prime example of how the executive branch is unilaterally projecting power and implementing policy without leaving a trace.” That’s cynicism for you.
Now You CIA Me, Now You Don’t
Greek journalist Elias P. Demetracopoulos found out the hard way that accurate observation can get you in trouble. In the early 1970s, after Demetracopoulos exposed the U.S. and Greek CIAs for secretly funneling money into Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, the Greek military junta tried to kidnap and murder him, and Nixonites spread malicious rumors that eventually found their way into print.
To combat this prolonged harassment, Demetracopoulos has spent the last 30 years trying to clear his name, repeatedly using the Freedom of Information Act to discover what the government had in store for him. But he only recently learned how the CIA managed to get him fired in 1960, when he was the Athens stringer for the New York Herald Tribune.
Demetracopoulos, now retired in Washington, D.C., says it was “fascinating and insulting” to find out that Stanley Grogan, then press aide to CIA director Allan Dulles, asked the managing editor of the Trib to fire the ambitious young stringer. Even more appalling, the managing editor did exactly as he was told. “It’s as if the Herald Tribune was the annex of Langley,” says Demetracopoulos. “It’s outrageous.”
The CIA’s first attack on the man they called “the Greek pest” was recounted in the May 2001 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine. In an article titled “Admirals Strike a Blow for the Press,” Demetracopoulos recalls how he believed he was doing a service for U.S.-Greek relations by obtaining interviews with three U.S. Navy admirals. There was nothing particularly controversial about the content of the interviews, which the journalist proposed to publish verbatim.
The conflict started in 1959, when Ellis Briggs, U.S. ambassador to Greece, found out that the admirals were talking to Demetracopoulos, and declared they did not have his permission to do so. The interviews did not run, and in 1960, CIA press aide Grogan started complaining about Demetracopoulos to Robert Donovan, then the Washington bureau chief of the Trib.
For whatever reason, CIA director Dulles didn’t want the journalist poking his nose into U.S. activities in Greece and elsewhere. In October 1960, Dulles and Grogan sent the Trib‘s D.C. bureau chief a memo accusing Demetracopoulos of being “untrustworthy” and out to “embarrass the U.S.”
They also included a draft letter, to be signed by Trib managing editor Fendall Yerxa, notifying several Greek agencies that Demetracopoulos’s press credentials had been revoked. Donovan forwarded the letter to Yerxa, who reproduced it, signed it, and mailed it to the intended recipients. Suddenly Demetracopoulos was out of a job.
In 1962, the journalist appealed to Senator Richard Russell, a Democrat from Georgia who was then chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. In that capacity, Russell summoned CIA director John McCone to meet with him and the writer. On August 13, 1962, Demetracopoulos recalls that Russell told McCone “an injustice was committed” and asked him to rectify it. Four days later, the journalist was rehired by the Trib.
That should have been a victory for Demetracopoulos, who says the incident left the paper “looking like a toady for a U.S. government agency.” But as he now realizes, it was he who had “embarrassed and exposed” the CIA as an institution, and for that, he would have the agency “on my neck” for the rest of his life.
Donovan, the man who did the CIA’s bidding, continued as the D.C. bureau chief for the Trib and then the L.A. Times, enjoying his access to power and recounting it in subsequent memoirs. Now retired, he did not respond to a request for comment.