19. PBS’s Frontline touted a partisan conspiracy theory accusing the 1980 Reagan campaign of delaying the release of U.S. hostages, but the evidence crumbled. (1991).
On April 17, 1991 the PBS documentary series Frontline aired a documentary investigating what The New York Times suggested was “The Election Story of the Decade.” But the reality never lived up to the hyperbole. Liberals pushed the conspiracy theory that the Reagan campaign in 1980 secretly plotted to delay the release of the U.S. hostages in Iran to prevent an “October Surprise” for Jimmy Carter. This led to 27 network news stories (and several special episodes of ABC’s Nightline) casting ethical aspersions on the Reagan campaign. But the tale of their alleged “lawlessness and recklessness” unraveled.
In November of 1991, the magazines Newsweek and The New Republic found them factually unsupportable. Newsweek reported that this conspiracy theory began with followers of extremist Lyndon LaRouche, Frontline spent more than $200,000 (yes, part of that taxpayer money) promoting the crackpot theory in their first documentary. Reporter John Barry insisted “Normal journalism got suspended, and you had a situation where journalists, in effect, became the conduits and collaborators of the sources they were meant to be checking.” In The New Republic, Steven Emerson called it “one of the largest hoaxes and fabrications in American journalism.”
In a second Frontline documentary on April 7, 1992, PBS admitted: “Some self-proclaimed witnesses to an arms-for-hostages deal have turned out to be not credible at all.” Then they shifted course to try and save face, investigating whether “Republican contacts with Iranians did exist, but were intended not to delay a hostage release, but to win their release as early as possible.” The PBS broadcast ended with yet another theory: that the CIA sent out their star witness Richard Brenneke to lie and discredit October Surprise investigations. Frontline never really apologized for these very expensive (and potentially ruinous) falsehoods.
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