MediaWatch: November 1991

Vol. Five No. 11

Nightline and Frontline Caught in Hoax


The credibility of investigative reports touting an "October Surprise" scandal -- that in 1980, Reagan campaign officials negotiated to delay the release of the Iranian hostages until after the election -- has been destroyed by the November 11 Newsweek and the November 18 New Republic.

The exposés, by Stephen Emerson and Jesse Furman in The New Republic and by a team led by John Barry in Newsweek, reviewed the charges made by primary sources of the "October Surprise" theory, including Richard Brenneke, Houshang Lavi, Barbara Honegger, Ari Ben-Menashe, and Jamshid Hashemi, and found them baseless.

Emerson and Furman reported that in the last four years, ABC "ran a series of 'investigative' stories based on new Brenneke accusations," citing a "confidential source" (Brenneke) making allegations such as "the United States, working with Israeli intelligence, secretly flew weapons to the contras and used the planes on their way back to transport drugs into the United States."

Despite stories like these, ABC issued no public retraction when Frank Snepp, who according to The New Republic, "reported Brenneke's allegations as truthful for ABC News for several years," wrote in the Village Voice that Brenneke's "October Surprise" claims were false. Yet knowing that Brenneke and Ari Ben-Menashe were untrustworthy (Newsweek reported that Ben-Menashe failed an ABC lie-detector test in November 1990), ABC left them out of the picture and based an entire one-hour June 20 Nightline this year on the testimony of Jamshid Hashemi. Emerson and Furman detailed how Hashemi's credibility problems were "even worse than those of Brenneke and Ben-Menashe."

ABC's unwillingness to show skepticism toward this conspiracy theory is also proven by the fact that Nightline chose not to air conservative journalists such as Herbert Romerstein, who correctly challenged the veracity of these sources earlier this year in debunking a PBS Frontline documentary for Human Events.

On the Fox Morning News November 5, Emerson, a former U.S. News & World Report writer and investigator for Sen. Frank Church, called the "October Surprise" theory "probably one of the largest hoaxes and fabrications in modern American journalism...I was amazed that in the last five years, no one bothered to look at the statements of the sources. I mean, each one totally contradicted the other. None of them had any documentation whatsoever. So I still question why major American institutions, journalistic institutions, accepted on face value the statements of these fabricated sources."