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    MOTHER JONE’S 1985 cover story on how ABC News killed multiple stories critical of Reagan associates. Two of them were mine.

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    By Peter Lance April 30th, 2023

    Lately I’ve been going through what Bob Dylan, early on, called “My Back Pages.” Recently, among multiple crates of research and investigative pieces from my days as a correspondent for ABC News (1981-87) I came across this remarkable cover story from the Nov/Dec 1985 edition of MOTHER JONES.

    Written by the fearless investigative reporter Mark Dowie, MJ’s former editor and publisher, the piece, featuring legendary ABC News anchor Peter Jennings on the cover, was a painstaking examination of multiple investigative pieces reported, produced and ready to air on ABC News in 1984 that ended up getting spiked.

    One of the stories that I reported, was produced by Marion Goldin, a four time Emmy winner who, for years, had been Mike Wallace’s alter ego, producing more than 50 pieces with him for 60 Minutes. By 1984 she was working with me in an investigative unit on ABC’s flagship broadcast World News Tonight.

    That story ripped the lid off serious abuses in a string of nursing homes owned or controlled by Charles Z. Wick, who was then head of The U.S. Information Agency, America’s public relations face to the world.

    We’d unearthed grisly evidence on the mistreatment of residents at one of Wick’s homes that caused Sen. Charles Percy (R-IL) then Chair of The Foreign Relations Committee, to assert that if he’d known the full extent of Wick’s controversial nursing home interests prior to his unchallenged confirmation, the President’s close Hollywood confidante, who had produced “Snow White And The Three Stooges,”  might have faced a far more challenging approval process to head the Agency that projects American values onto the global stage. By any reasonable standard, that was “news.”

    The other story that got the axe was an exposé of the then Nevada GOP Senator Paul Laxalt (grandfather of the current Senate candidate) and his alleged ties to organized crime. That piece, produced by Bill Lichtenstein based on my interviews with FBI agent Joseph Yablonsky in Las Vegas, had been entirely vetted, but as we approached airtime on a Friday, with a competing piece (reported by Mike Wallace and produced by Lowell Bergman) to air on the CBS news magazine that Sunday, our story was pulled, as was their’s.

    If you scroll through Dowie’s account you’ll learn how, during that same election year, with Reagan up for a second term vs. Sen. Walter Mondale and VP candidate Geraldine Ferraro, ABC News created what was known in-house as a “Ferraro SWAT Team,” to dig into the holdings of the Queens congresswoman’s husband John Zaccaro.

    Within months ABC also pulled the plug on another probe of controversial Reagan Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, who, as Dowie noted, had been indicted a month before the election “on one count of Grand Larceny and 136 counts of falsifying business records.” The fraud charges later prompted his resignation.

    Having lived through the killing of two of the three pieces, I can confirm that Dowie’s account of the heated meetings we had with various ABC News VP’s in the 4th floor conference room at 7 West 66th Street was dead on. But he left out one killer line.

    At one point on the Wick story, as Marion and I sat across from former NBC News President Dick Wald, suggesting that strings might have been pulled at 1330 Avenue of The America’s (ABC’s Corporate Headquarters) Wald shot back through gritted teeth, while looking at me and ignoring Mrs. Goldin, “If you or that woman are suggesting that the News Division would ever knuckle under to Corporate, you can leave this building now and never return again!”

    To their credit ABC News President Roone Arledge,  Peter Jennings and World News Tonight Executive Producer William Lord, who brought me over to WNT from, NIGHTLINE, never told me to pull any punches and I continued reporting hard hitting investigative stories for the next three years. But there was little doubt that in 1984 we felt a chill.

    A FINAL CODA on why ABC’s great news division, might have been influenced by “the suits” at 1330.

    During the presidential campaign that year, Ronald Reagan had vowed that if he was elected to a second term, the FCC would change the 7-7-7 Rule, prohibiting companies from owning more than seven TV, AM and FM stations to 12-12-12. That rule change which happened in 1985, allowed Capital Cities Communications (a company 1/4 ABC’s size) to gobble it up in a takeover that earned ABC founder and Chairman Leonard Goldenson, multiple-millions of dollars in a $3.5 billion dollar deal  

    At the time, it was the biggest media acquisition in history. Then, 10 years later, those less restrictive FCC ownership rules led to Disney’s $19 billion dollar merger with “The Alphabet Network,” making countless more millions for those holding large chunks of ABC stock.

    So was there a quid pro quo in that Orwellian year of 1984? Read Mark’s important story, rescued from a dusty storage space, and you decide.


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