February 16, 2005
By Patricia Goldsmith
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practiced readers of newspapers realize that much of the information
conveyed is contextualized as storylines. This is necessary to organize
ongoing coverage and provide a narrative that readers can follow,
otherwise the information would be about as readable as a phone
book or any other list of unrelated statistics. But it also means
that fundamental decisions of cropping and framing are buried. Those
decisions may or may not be subject to open debate within news organizations,
but for the most part they remain hidden from the public.
This is important to bear in mind because unstated assumptions
are very difficult to rebut. In fact, they are virtually impossible
to counter during the course of an election or national debate that
is carried on largely via sound bites and visual images. This is
the territory where early-model spin doctors and late-model propagandists
ply their trades.
Take the example of the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth ads. The
major newspapers ultimately found their claims against Kerry to
be unsubstantiated. But the story claimed nearly three weeks' worth
of saturation coverage - a feeding frenzy - before they reached
Why? Because the mere fact of the ads' existence - their effect
on the horse race, the polls, the controversies and passions aroused
- was the focus of the early stories. Many early "message discipline"
stories also focused on the cleverness of insinuating such explosive
material via a relatively small media buy in a few southern markets.
It was only much later that the validity of the claims was seriously
considered and became a story unto itself.
The problem of what should be included in a candidate's "character"
storyline became acute in the early nineties, when a cottage industry
devoted to exposing Bill Clinton's sexual peccadilloes grew up in
conservative think tanks and foundations. Paula Jones was encouraged
to sell her story to the National Enquirer in 1993, and by
1998, when all the news that's fit to print included the unexpurgated
Starr Report, checkbook journalism had won out - definitively.
Within the past four years, checkbook journalism has metastasized
to include payments that essentially rig the punditocracy in favor
of the administration, through cash disbursements, or payola, to
supposedly disinterested commentators with ties to specific, targeted
communities. (Karl Rove started out in direct marketing.) Armstrong
Williams pandered to a black market segment that could not be reached,
ordinarily, by Fox. He was a big buy compared to the paltry $20,000
Maggie Gallagher got, or the $10,000 they gave to Michael McManus.
We also have the strange case of "Jeff Gannon," a fake reporter
in the elite White House press corps frequently called on by the
president to interrupt legitimate journalists' ability to follow
up on tough questions.
No one knows how many journalists were receiving payola. After
the Armstrong Williams expose, Scott McClellan said he knew of no
other cases. Two more quickly surfaced.
But I want to consider the opposite problem. Killing stories is,
to me, an even darker art. It involves a degree of collusion by
the fourth estate with the powers they are meant to investigate
that is dangerous to accepted popular notions about accountability
in a representative system of government.
Two recent examples leap to mind. The first is the so-called Bulgegate
story about the pictures taken during the first presidential debate
that clearly showed some kind of device between George Bush's shoulder
blades. There was intense interest on the blogs, particularly since
at one point in the first debate Bush inexplicably spit out "Now
let me finish!" when no one was talking and he had plenty of time
on the clock.
The story took on heft when Dr. Robert Nelson, who had worked
for thirty years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an expert on
photo imaging for NASA, said publicly that he was convinced that
there was something under the president's jacket when the White
House said there was nothing. This is a man whose expertise was
digitally enhancing and interpreting imagery in photos of Mars'
Unbeknownst to those of us in the blogosphere, New York Times
reporters had spoken to Nelson and went on to interview Jim Atkinson,
the owner of a spyware and debugging company in Massachusetts, who
was able to identify "the object Nelson highlighted definitively
as a magnetic cueing device that uses a wire yoke around the neck
to communicate with a hidden earpiece, the kind of thing that is
used routinely now by music performers, actors, reporters - and
What was the Times reporting publicly while this investigating
was going on? Well, an anonymous source from the Times told
Jarrett Murphy of the Village Voice that the Bulgegate story
had been offered to them - and thrown on the nutpile. There was
also a line in a New York Times Magazine essay by Matt Bai
on October 31, 2004, using Bulgegate as an example of the paranoia
of "political conspiracists."
An anonymous source, a throwaway comment: impossible to attack,
let alone refute.
But what's interesting about Bulgegate is that on December 21,
2004, during Christmas week, their ombudsman confirmed that the
Times had indeed put serious effort into the story and that,
in fact, the Times science reporters still believed in its
authenticity. Times Managing Editor Jim Keller spoke of it
ruefully as just speculation, in the end. They buried the confession,
but got it on the record to cover their asses.
That word "buried" has a lot of resonance in this context. It
brings up a story the Times ran shortly after the election
with the headline: "Vote Fraud Rumors, Spread by Bloggers, Are Quickly
Buried." I don't know if that was an order, a wish, or an attempt
to convince themselves.
The problem with that one is that a lot of us were actually paying
attention to the voting rights violations that led up to this election.
Stories about state troopers going into the homes of black get-out-the-vote
activists in Jeb Bush's Florida. Stories about Democratic registrations
being ripped up by Republican operatives. Ken Blackwell. Glenda
Hood. The insecurity of black box voting machines, as recognized
by courts in California and, yes, Ohio.
Greg Palast, who uncovered Jeb Bush's infamous 2000 purge list,
found credible evidence of election fraud in Ohio. The Times
wanted to know if he had a story so they sent him an email asking
two important exploratory questions: "1. Are you a sore loser? 2.
Are you a conspiracy nut?"
How are readers - citizens - supposed to react to such an approach
(assuming that they hear it)? In this case, it is taken for granted
that John Kerry's concession is the end of the story. John Conyers
and Barbara Boxer were, for the Times, little more than footnotes
to history, and therefore deserving of very little attention.
I object to the conspiracy frame for two reasons. First of all,
it is an ad hominem argument, nothing but name calling. But secondly,
and perhaps more importantly, it degrades the whole concept of unlawful
combinations. It effectively nullifies our communal ability to recognize
the very real dangers of a concentration of wealth and power - even
though our greatest presidents have foreseen and warned against
just that. In Dwight Eisenhower's words, "beware of the military-industrial
complex." Was Dwight a conspiracy nut?
The very word "conspiracy" is selected because it conjures up
visions of paranoia, the political version of obsessive-compulsive
disorder. Other, less loaded words that could be used are, for instance,
MONOPOLY. PRICE FIXING. GOUGING. WAR PROFITEERING. RIGGING.
Talk about lone gunmen and people's eyes glaze over, because whatever
happened to John Kennedy is unknowable.
But if we talk about what happens in boardrooms, I don't think
the idea of collusion, of a mindset, of an agenda, is so preposterous.
It's all a question of context.
As the self-styled newspaper of record, the Times is part
of the leadership elite of the country. It has enormous authority
(although I think its claims to ontology - did it even happen if
we don't report it? - are delusional). But the Times has
gone so far in upholding the authority of government leadership
that no longer possesses legitimacy, that a large number of middle-middle
class people who used to hold the Gray Lady in awe can no longer
trust her word.