Friday, May 07, 2004

Media Revolt: A Manifesto

Journalism is kind of like the weather. We all like to complain about it, but none of us ever do anything about it.

Oh, many of us point out the problems. Some of us are even very good at it. But at what point does our criticism finally coalesce into action?

As a longtime journalist and sometime editor, I love to read the Daily Howler almost daily. There really is no one on the Web as good at eviscerating bad reporting as Bob Somerby. His Webzine is a big regular stop in my daily rounds.

But lately, he's been even more on-point than usual, which is saying something. In one of his recent pieces, Somerby pointed with a kind of savage finality to the bottom line of the media's flagrant frivolousness and demeaning of the national discourse: It puts us all at serious risk.
What does Dowd have on her mind today? George Bush can't answer questions about 9/11. And John Kerry doesn't make his own sandwiches!

Of course, inanity has been this corps' stock-in-trade over at least the last dozen years. When you read your paper each day, you read the work of a vacuous press which is happy to display its Millionaire Pundit Values -- a press corps addicted to trivia and inanity. While Osama plotted in the summer of 2001, they rubbed their thighs about Chandra Levy. Meanwhile, they've turned your elections into trivia festivals, built around earth tones, Love Story, dog pills, blow-jobs. Now we're handed our current fare. What is the headline on Dowd's piece? "Guns and Peanut Butter," it says.

Somerby displays an unusual amount of passion in this piece. In fact, it might even seem a little over the top, except for two things: 1) he's exactly right, and 2) what he's saying should indeed make us all very, very angry.
While they clowned about Gary Condit, Osama's men were tooling those planes. And now, as they clown about peanut butter, Osama's men are still at work. And what will happen to your country because Wilgoren and Dowd set the tone? Let us finally tell you your future: Osama's men will come with a bomb (see below), and they'll destroy an American city. American society will end on that day. And when it does, you can think of Wilgoren and Dowd -- and you can think of the "letters editor" who laughed in your face with that letter today. They've made a joke of your discourse for years -- while your enemies hunt for a bomb. There is little chance those enemies won't succeed, because screaming idiots -- screaming idiots -- have long been in charge of your discourse.

9/11 should have driven that home. In the wake of the disaster, the media -- newspapers, TV, radio, the Internet -- needed to do some serious soul searching about its own role in the disaster. And it should have begun reforming its practices, particularly in the way it covers both international news and domestic politics.

Nothing. Nada. Zippo.

No, we're still indulging our audiences with "reality programs" that are nothing if not exercises in surreallity. There remain only a handful of mainstream media outlets performing serious journalism with any consistency, and none of them have sway with the Kewl Kids of the Beltway.

We still treat our national politics like a combination sporting event and gossipfest. We're still demeaning the national discourse with a steady diet of propaganda/spin souffle served up on a platter of triviality, with a side of slander.

In the process, we keep the public (a large portion of it willingly) in the dark about the very real politics and policies that directly affect their security and well-being, both here and now and for the long haul.

How do we fight the war on terror? (Other than buying an SUV and being a good consumer and keeping your head down and voting Republican, that is.) Well, have you heard anything in the way of serious national dialogue about this point? I haven't, not to any great extent, and for a simple reason: The media have declined to facilitate that discussion.

They have instead defaulted to Position A: Whatever course of action George W. Bush takes is a priori good, and done for sound reasons. Neither, for that matter, is his competence ever seriously questioned.

The reality, as I've been discussing, is that Bush's "war on terror" is an incomprehensible exercise in increasing the likelihood that high radicalized, highly motivated terrorists will again strike on American soil. A serious war on terror would begin from a recognition of the nature of the threat, with a considered response that's both flexible and comprehensive. Bush's Iraq war is none of these.

And the American public will never hear this from its mainstream media, especially not the dysfunctional, inbred family that is the Beltway press corps.

I mentioned awhile back that I went to hear Charles Pierce give the keynote address at this year's National Writers Workshop in Seattle (and, since I was one of the speakers, wound up having the pleasure of hanging out with Charles for much of the day).

What Pierce had to say was important, especially for those of us in the journalism business. He extolled the virtues of what we do as writers -- but also applied a razor knife to the current milieu and exposed just where we are going wrong.

I kept some sketchy notes from the talk, but another blogger named Bailey the Dog took better notes than mine and reported back on the upshot of Pierce's talk:
Someone in the audience did ask what I thought was a pretty decent question of Pierce -- he wondered what four topics the media covers most ineffectively. (Why limit it to four, I wondered?) At any rate, Pierce responded that journalists summarily do the worst job with:

1.) The poor.
2.) Politics (in that we rarely know the real person campaigning, what they're saying to the public and how what they're saying effects us.)
3.) Real life (in terms of long form stories)
4.) International affairs. (I think this probably goes without saying, but as examples Pierce notes that events such as 9/11 and war in the Balkans routinely surprise the American public but if we were remotely clued into the world, they probably would not.)

Pierce emphasized the second point, especially noting that the press really fails to report on policy and its effect on people in their real lives. It makes campaigns into horse races and scarcely gives the public any sense of the policies that candidates represent and how they will work out in the real world.

It's not just the press: It's the entire political class that has fallen into this degraded form of discourse, from pundits to pollsters to operatives to the politicians themselves. This was driven home to me by a post from Rhetorica that excerpted a Frank Luntz discussion on MSNBC (Chris Matthews' Hardball was the occasion) describing a recent encounter with a "focus group" of voters:
His opening question: "Regardless of who you're voting for, what characteristic do you want in a Democratic nominee?" After several people responded, Luntz said (with my clarifying remarks):

We'll [the press] talk about personalities for the Democrats and you [the panel] all keep bringing it back to policy. That's an interesting dynamic. Up until now, people [who?] were looking for, as you used, bold leadership, honesty, a vision for the future. [Luntz turns to the camera] And yet they're all talking policy. [To the panel] Is that where the Democratic nominee is going to go, rather than focusing on attributes, they're going to focus on policy?

Luntz continues to mention, with a sense of wonder, the panel's interest in policy. Matthews and his guests ignore it. Here is Luntz's concluding remark that Matthews cuts off to return to his guests:

I asked them to talk about candidates, talk about attributes and they kept coming back to issues. That says to me that there's no Democrat out there that's really captured the hearts and mind of the public as an alternative to George Bush. It is early, but there's no one out there that's got a clear...

In other words, the panel's interest in policy, the day-to-day stuff of governance that affects peoples' lives, is proof that no candidate has a convincing presidential image. And the logic in that would be what? I would say this is proof that, at the moment, no image created by the campaigns or the press has completely usurped their abilities to comprehend their own political interests.

The obvious aspect of this discussion is the way the entire framing of the debate -- as a question of "character" as opposed to such boring details as policy -- heavily favors the party that relies more on imagery and jingoism, wrapping itself in the flag and pounding its chest about moral superiority: in other words, conservatives.

But even beyond the bias is the way this framing really corrupts and trivializes the national debate, so that we find ourselves constantly arguing about the "morality" or "character" of politicians, an issue that is by nature a product of spin and propagandizing. This has never been more clear than in the current election, when the "character" of a pampered fraternity party boy who couldn't be bothered to serve out his term in the National Guard and who went on to fail miserably at every business venture he touched is successfully depicted as that of a sincere and patriotic regular guy, while that of a three-time Purple Heart winner who voluntarily left Yale to serve in Vietnam, and whose ensuing three decades of public service have been a model of principle and consistency, is somehow depicted as belonging to a spineless elitist.

If the press were properly reporting on this election, the public would have a clearer picture of how John Kerry's economic, environmental and education policies would affect their lives differently than those purveyed by the Bush administration. It would understand the significant differences in their approaches to national security, and it would be far clearer just who in fact has more serious and credible credentials when it comes to the "war on terror" and keeping the nation safe, particularly when it comes to matters of basic competence and knowledge. These are issues that affect us in concrete ways.

But the press doesn't deal with those issues. Instead, we get peanut butter.

After hearing Pierce, and especially after reading Somerby's recent outburst, it became clear that many of us have a firm grasp on the nature and dimensions of the problem. But very few of us do much of anything about it. And the truth is that this is not like the weather -- the behavior of the media is something we actually can do something about.

But we have to get organized. And after years of wandering in the wilderness, I believe that 2004 is the year to make it happen -- if for no other reason than that the stakes are so high.

The main reason, though, is that I think the tools for serious change are finally within our reach. And the chief tool is the Internet, the blogosphere in particular.

For too long, the public has been forced to rely on the mass media as the means for obtaining and disseminating information. This was not a serious problem for most of our history. Though the means for spreading information had to go through the traditional filter of the media gateways (particularly editors and reporters), the system in fact worked generally well, as long as a measure of independence was present within the press itself.

As the conglomeration and consolidation of the mass media has proceeded apace through the past two decades unchecked, that independence has largely vanished or become effectively strangled, and with it a responsible treatment of the public interest by the nation's press. The traditional media filters have instead become bottlenecks, preventing information that is in fact vital for the public well-being from ever reaching them -- oftentimes for reasons that are trivial and puerile, not to mention geared toward the manipulation of the media in the service of corporate powers and their agenda.

The blogosphere is a direct result of those bottlenecks. Information is now flowing around them through the networks of dissemination that blogs have become.

Blogs represent, in fact, the real democratization of journalism, which traditionally has always been about the work of keeping the public duly and properly informed. Stories and vital facts now no longer need go through the New York Times and NBC News in order to gain wide distribution. Blogs can effectively reach as many people as several large city dailies combined. And the network of their combined efforts represents a massive shift of data around the traditional media filters.

Blogs can also be terrific means for organizing, particularly for putting together a concerted response to political and media atrocities. One need only survey the ability of blogs to affect real-world politics -- their role in bringing about the fall of Trent Lott was just a start -- to understand that their power can readily extend to reshaping the media, since they represent in themselves a kind of citizens' solution to needed reforms in the media.

To bring that about, two things are needed: 1) A recognition that this power exists, and 2) Organizing in a thoughtful and effective fashion to wield it.

It seems to me that a manifesto -- a definitive statement of revolt against the media status quo and an outline of the purposes and strategies of that revolt -- is what's needed.

So I've written one. I wouldn't want to presume to speak on behalf of the entire blogosphere, nor for those who perceive the need for media reform and are working to enact it. But it's clear to me that we need a manifesto of some kind -- which means we need a starting point. Here is mine.

I'm hoping the following Manifesto, if nothing else, gets the discussion going. I'm hoping to get plenty of feedback, both from other bloggers and readers. Consider it a kind of first draft. As the discussion comes in, I'll shore up its weaknesses, remove obvious flaws, add overlooked points of significance. I see it as a semi-democratic project that draws input from all around -- though of course it will ultimately be filtered through my own sensibilities. Perhaps someone else will come up with an even more effective and concise manifesto. The idea here is simply to lay the groundwork. In the end, I hope to have a document that others will feel comfortable co-signing. I'll then collect the signatures and attach them to the bottom of the Manifesto.

Without further adieu, here's my stab at moving from simple critique of the media to the much harder work of actually doing something about it. Feel free to join in.

The Media Revolt Manifesto

1. The well-being of American democracy ultimately depends on a well-informed electorate. As such, the role of the media in keeping the public properly informed is not merely vital, it is sacred.

2. Over the past 20 years, American media have been in a state of serious decline insofar is it lives up to the responsibilities of this role:
-- Conglomeration and the increasing grip of monolithic corporatism has reduced the diversity of voices and viewpoints that are available to the public at all levels, from small local papers to major networks.

-- The rising dominance of television journalism has replaced serious journalism geared toward the public interest and policy with infotainment journalism that regards the value of stories almost solely for their ability to garner viewers through titillation, scandal-mongering and gore, while the perverse and demeaning cult of celebrity is elevated to the highest echelons.

-- The demise of the Fairness Doctrine has ensured that the public airwaves, controlled by a handful of conservatives given free rein to institute a hierarchy or self-interested propaganda, are now entirely the domain of right-wing ideologues who view defamation as entertainment and factuality and fairness as ratings death.

-- As a result of all these changes, reportage that remained vital to the public interest even though it may not have garnered strong bottom-line results -- especially investigative journalism, policy analysis, and international news -- became relegated to afterthought status.

3. The nature of these declines produced a string of travesties in the past decade and more:
-- The first major terrorist attack on American soil -- the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 169 people -- was treated as the idiosyncratic act of a small handful of mentally unstable actors, rather than as the arrival of the most serious threat to confront America since World War II: asymmetrical terrorist attacks that cannot be linked to foreign states and which cannot be dealt with through military action.

-- The continuing appearance of similar attempts to perpetrate equally horrific domestic terrorist attacks, mostly by right-wing extremists, in the five years ensuing Oklahoma City was utterly ignored by media outlets, largely because of the success of law enforcement in stopping such attacks in their tracks through an effective combination of law enforcement and intelligence.

-- The grotesque pursuit of pseudo-scandals regarding President Clinton's private life -- from Whitewater to "Travelgate" to Monica Lewinsky -- became the centerpiece of national coverage of his presidency, eclipsing any rational discussion of his administration's policy initiatives as well as those of the post-1994 Republican Congress. This pursuit finally culminated in charade of Clinton's impeachment for allegedly perjuring himself in testimony over a civil suit that should never have been allowed in the first place, while in the meantime the clearly Machiavellian and unethical behavior of his pursuers went almost utterly unreported.

-- The media fetish for Clinton's private life buried the seriousness of the growing assymetrical terrorist threat, embodied in the treatment of Clinton's attacks on Al Qaeda terrorist camps in 1998 as mere "wagging the dog" attempts to divert public attention from the Lewinsky scandal. At a time when Clinton was attempting to raise public awareness of the terrorist threat -- both domestically and abroad -- his pleas fell on the media's deaf ears because they had "other priorities."

-- The 2000 presidential campaign between Al Gore and George W. Bush became focused on trivial personality traits -- particularly Gore's supposed "embellishments" (such as the false "invented the Internet" meme) and Bush's supposed "straight shooter" qualities -- all of which were pure concoctions of partisan spin that favored the corporatist agenda of media ownership. The resulting extraordinary bias culminated in the Florida vote debacle in which Republicans were allowed to present pure falsehoods (such as the notion that machine counts were "more accurate" than hand counts) as fact, while Gore's legitimate efforts to challenge the counts under the established framework were depicted as illegitimate; and in the end, an extraordinarily corrupt and partisan Supreme Court ruling that overwhelmed Gore's popular-vote victory and placed Bush in the White House was treated as simply politics as usual, instead of the gross breach of democratic values that it was. It also placed in the White House a man manifestly incapable of comprehending the nature and gravity of the looming terrorist threat.

4. This degradation of the media, and its concomitant failure to keep Americans adequately informed, culminated in the attacks on American soil by Al Qaeda terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, in which more than 3,000 people were killed in New York City and Washington, D.C. The media, to no one's great surprise, have never even begun to confront their own culpability in this disaster; and similarly they have failed to point out the fairly obvious culpability of the asleep-at-the-wheel president on whose watch it occurred. (Meanwhile, of course, Bill Clinton's role in the attacks has been aired ad nauseam.)

5. When George W. Bush sidetracked the resulting "war on terror" into an invasion of Iraq -- a nation that had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks -- by waving evidence of weapons of mass destruction in the public's face and suggesting that any dissent was akin to treason, the media utterly failed in its responsibility to examine the claims seriously and to treat them skeptically. Instead, it became a virtual propaganda arm for the White House, and savagely turned on any person (see, e.g., Scott Ritter, who was smeared as a pedophile) who dared play the role of skeptic. Protesters were summarily dismissed as loony "Bush haters."

6. Coverage of the 2004 election has already begun to resemble the travesty of 2000, focusing on trivial (and mostly concocted) personality traits: Howard Dean is grotesquely portrayed as a maniacal and out-of-control Howard Bealesque loose cannon; John Edwards as a callow pretty boy; Wesley Clark as an egotistical martinet; and Dennis Kucinich as a whiny, limp-wristed socialist. Once he became the de facto nominee, the "French-like" John Kerry was given both barrels of this treatment, as his status as a war hero came under fire without any grounds whatsoever, while other reports focused on his being served peanut-butter sandwiches by a personal assistant. Meanwhile, patrician fraternity brother George W. Bush is depicted as a man of the people, clearing brush on his Texas ranch. Matters of substantive policy that actually affect voters' lives -- the administration's floundering in Iraq; an economic policy that deprived over 2 million Americans of employment and destroyed the nation's job-creation capacity; an environmental policy that ensured more polluted air and water and diminished wildlife, as well as the more rapid approach of global warming; an energy policy that ensured $2-a-gallon-and-worse gasoline and increasing dependence on oil; an agricultural policy that dooms forever the small family farm -- have not even crossed the media's radar.

7. Americans have had enough. Like Howard Beale, they're mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore. Unlike Beale, however, their revolt against the media Powers That Be will be neither manic nor futile. It will be organized, rational, factually sound, unintimidated and, in the end, constructive rather than destructive. It will be founded on certain basic principles:
-- The bastardization of modern mass media into a propaganda outlet for narrow conservative corporate interests, in violation of its historic (and constitutional) role as guardian of the public weal, will be opposed at every turn. The driving forces behind this corruption are the conglomeration and deregulation of the media, and the concomitant suppression of dissenting voices; the vanity and naked self-interest of the press corps, embodied in their open embrace of spin as fact; the willingness of the public to embrace "lowest common denominator" reporting that, instead of making them informed participants in democracy, treats them to the illusion of news as entertainment.

-- Its chief bylaw will be an insistence on traditional journalistic values: factual correctness, fairness and balance, a healthy skepticism of the reigning "official story," conventional wisdom, and the claims of critics and defenders alike. It will seek a return to the nation's newsrooms of the kind of investigative and consumer-oriented journalism that has been the first victim of the bottom-line orientation of corporate media ownership, as well as the kind of newsroom oversight in the form of truly independent ombudsmen that once ensured that someone was watching the watchdogs on behalf of the public.

-- It will embrace the principles of American democracy, particularly openness of debate and the open dissemination of information. It will never embrace or even suggest the suppression of conservative views; instead, it will be predicated on confronting bad speech with more speech. All we will demand is the equal consideration and dissemination of other viewpoints as well.

-- The degradation of the national discourse into trivialities and prurient speculation will be the focus of the revolt. When reporters insist on covering politics as a horse race, replacing serious analysis of policy and its effects on the real life of citizens with gossip columns and talking points, and especially when they engage in fraudulent journalism that twists and conceals the truth, they will be exposed for the untrustworthy miscreants they are. When corporate owners adopt de facto policies -- from gutting serious journalism in newsrooms, to a bias in hiring and promotion, to the outright suppression of dissent -- which slant the reporting that fills our newspaper columns and the public airwaves, they will be brought to bay by public pressure to respect the public's right to (and need for) informative, factual and balanced journalism. When the public is carelessly and selfishly gulled by entertainment propaganda posing as journalism, we will combat their languor by working hard to disseminate facts and logic through the many means now available to us in the computer age.

8. This revolt will be organized strategically around two realities: 1) Previous tactics in the efforts to reform the nation's media have largely failed or faltered (see, e.g., the "public journalism" movement), though their occasional successes and certain principles are well worth noting and preserving. 2) Though this is a revolution against an evolved status quo, the spirit it represents beckons to a return to civic-minded journalism that enshrines the diversity of voices in American media; it is, in fact, more traditionalist in orientation than radical. What is radical -- and unacceptable -- is the current state of journalism as a wholly owned subsidiary and propaganda arm of narrow corporate interests.
-- It will generally eschew boycotts of the media themselves. Such an attempt is not only unlikely to have any discernible effect (media companies are notorious for targeting "key demographics" anyway), it's self-defeating, since it's impossible to be informed enough to act as a media watchdog without being a consumer of their goods as well.

-- It will nonetheless apply pressure against media companies -- economic pressure through boycotts, and rhetorical pressure through letter-writing and publicity campaigns -- through two key venues: advertisers and the media conglomerates' non-media enterprises.

-- The businesses whose advertising dollars underwrite so much of this misbehavior can be especially sensitive to having their names associated with volatile issues that inflame public anger. Even mass letter-writing campaigns to these companies can have the desired effect; and if necessary, an outright boycott may be wielded.

-- Likewise, business boycotts of the larger media conglomerates under whose auspices the corruption of the press has occurred may be useful or even necessary, particularly if the misbehavior is egregious enough or actually occurs at the larger corporate level. Disney, for example, fully deserves a boycott for its outrageous corporate decision to prevent its Miramax subsidiary from distributing Roger Moore's anti-Bush film, Fahrenheit 911.

-- These campaigns will be focused especially on two key problems: the decline of journalistic standards for both factual straightness and depth of coverage, and the perversion of the national debate by focusing on trivialities and "character" issues in the place of serious policy matters.

-- The revolution also will demand certain legislative and structural changes that will break up the monoculturalization of the media and return it to its former diversity and openness. Foremost among these is the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine. The demise (during the Reagan administration) of this regulatory protection against the partisan abuse of the public airwaves proved to be the cornerstone of the rise of the modern conservative domination of radio, particularly in the realm of the propagandist talk shows which too many Americans use as a substitute for serious information sources. The fears of the original critics of ending the doctrine -- that station owners would see the change as carte blanche for handing over the airwaves to a monochromatic ideology (in this case, conservatism) that only recently has begun to show cracks in the facade -- have manifested themselves all too clearly.

-- Along the same lines, but even more importantly, is the need to return many of the rules limiting the breadth of media ownership that were eliminated during the "deregulation" of the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, and whose few remnants now remain under attack by the Bush-appointed FCC chairman. The vertical and horizontal integration of the nation's mass media is having the same destructive effect as the similar integration of the nation's food industry, ranging all the way from small-town papers devoured and gutted by chains to cable-TV and network news becoming increasingly dominated by a travesty of the journalistic ethos twisted into a perverse culture of celebrity whose broad effect is to numb and paralyze the populace. Our means of informing the public have been winnowed down to a handful of large corporations who continue to demonstrate an utter disregard for anything beyond their own narrow interests. And those interests in recent years have come to clearly include keeping the public in relative ignorance by keeping them focused on trivialities and phony non-issues.

-- In the long run, this will require structural changes -- both in FCC and other regulatory policy, as well as in the tax and investment infrastructures -- that both require and encourage the breakup of media conglomerates. At the same time, it will be important to encourage (also through tax and investment infrastructures, as well as various small-business initiatives) the revitalization of small local ownership of the nation's media, along with the diversification of national-media outlets, ranging from the creation of viable newswire services beyond the current Asssociated Press monopoly to the divestment of national news networks from their dominance of cable TV.

-- This must be a nonpartisan revolution, though of course the immediate beneficiaries will be progressives, liberals and centrists, since all have faced a relentless assault from the conservative movement over the past decade regarding their voice within the mainstream media. (The entire purpose of the "liberal media" myth was to cast any idea or policy that fell outside the conservative party line as the product of a corrupt "liberalism.") Nonetheless, there are also conservatives of good will who recognize that the current cabal controlling both the government and media represent nothing particularly to do with genuine conservative values and almost entirely to do with the Manichean acquisition and manipulation of power. All Americans of every political stripe stand to benefit from these reforms, especially since their abuse in this decade can become a two-edged sword in another generation. No one, liberal or conservative alike, benefits from a constricted media that is only good for transmitting propaganda and lacks the diversity that is essential to informing a democracy.

9. The Internet -- and in particular, blogs -- will be the cornerstone of the strategy this media revolution will follow, though of course all means are important participants. Indeed, the reforms are intended to reach every facet of American mass media: newspapers large and small, television, film, radio, books, and of course the Internet.

For that matter, blogs themselves are odd creatures in that, except for the handful who actually engage in original reporting themselves, they are almost entirely dependent on other media forms, particularly print and Internet journalism. But part of what makes them unique is that they synthesize and contain information from all these other sources.

Blogs are, above all, uniquely democratic in nature. Anyone can blog. Supposedly serious "name" journalists ultimately have no more real value in the blogosphere than pseudonymous gym teachers who reveal a knack for being in touch with the larger populace. The value of what you write about, and how well you do it, is all that finally counts.

Blogs are also uniquely self-correcting in a way that eludes most other media; if false information is disseminated, it doesn't take long before it's eviscerated by other bloggers. This function, indeed, forms the backbone of its larger role as a media watchdog; just as blogs will "out" bad blogging, they also have been shown to expose false reporting, as well as malicious behavior on the part of both politicians and the press that might otherwise be buried in the "mainstream."

Because the blogosphere is still more or less in its infancy, it remains somewhat indistinct in shape, though a larger architecture is already beginning to emerge. There are inherent flaws, not the least of which is that a consistent blogger ethos seems not to have emerged fully but has remained formative; at some point, a sense of journalistic ethics ought to take root in the name of establishing credibility.

Nonetheless, blogs can and should play the role of central clearing-house for information in the Media Revolt. As the general public realizes that blogs can provide them with vital information they're not getting anywhere else, the audience will build. This includes the whole gamut of information: the factual news about the world, as well as reports on who's misbehaving or committing political atrocities or simply being incompetent; analysis of this information that would be suppressed in mainstream reports; information about planned actions to protest misbehavior; and action and funds needed to enact the needed legislative and structural reforms.

Blogs, in other words, can and should play the role abdicated by the mainstream media both in monitoring their own behavior and ethics, and in providing enough diversity that a wealth of viewpoints are given fair treatment, as in any healthy democratic society, and the public properly served.

Blogs will not and cannot do the job alone, of course. The whole purpose of the revolt is to foster an environment in which mainstream journalists, from the lowly ink-stained wretch to the well-coiffed network anchor, are both allowed and positively encouraged to provide truthful and meaningful journalism that provides vital information to the public and does it responsibly and thoroughly. So that will mean recognizing and positively celebrating when superior journalism does its job well; such reporters and truth-tellers should be lauded, promoted, and in the end well remunerated for their work. It will mean channeling the marketplace to reward organizations that do their job well, too.

Finally, the Media Revolt will tap the energy of the citizenry through traditional means as well: Letter-writing campaigns, voting with our pocketbooks, organizing politics and funds on the ground -- without which, in fact, anything that occurs on the Web may prove meaningless. The idea is to turn from simply critiquing the media to taking concrete action.

10. There should be no naivete about the nature of what we are up against. This is a revolt against a national discourse that has degraded into a puerile swamp of innuendo, smear, and dishonest reportage. Anyone participating must be prepared to have the worst of this kind of tactic used ruthlessly against them. And yet because of that, the revolt must at every turn repudiate such tactics and refuse ever to engage them: there must be no groundless insinuation or nakedly false "facts." When they natter about "character" or "likeability," we should talk plainly about policy and what happens in the real world. Smears (that is, fact-free attacks on a public figure's personal character) should not be answered with counter-smears. It's fair (if a concession to diversionary tactics) to fight back with facts, but never fair to resort to twisting or omitting: that's what they do. Cutting corners just to score political points is a Pyrrhic victory. If this is a revolt about integrity, then it will fail if it does not emody integrity itself.

Questions about our opponents' characters, of course, will remain an issue as long as they insist on framing the debate that way, and as long as they keep providing factual reasons to remain dubious. But defeating them should never be predicated on attacking their characters; it should be founded on their disastrous and incompetent stewardship of both the national media and the government itself.

Undertaking this task means hard work. But it has become clear to us as citizens, in an age when fear and terror rule our body politic, that what is at stake here is the soul of democracy itself. To save it, no labor should seem too great.

[Feel free to comment publicly, or to write me privately at Some responses may be posted.]

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Facing the far right

Well, we'll take good news where we can find it. And one tidbit of good news came out of northern California a couple of weeks ago when a planned Holocaust-denial conference fell flat on its ass.

The chief blow came when the German social club in Sacramento, where organizers had scheduled their two-day hatefest, got wind of what their little get-together was about (these kinds of groups always deceive their hosts about the nature of their gatherings) and withdrew permission for the gathering.

The event's organizers had neglected to provide for a backup locale, so the conference -- which was to have included a number of the Holocaust denial movement's leading lights, such as they are -- was called off. However, some of those speakers did manage to arrange a reorganized presentation at a different locale in Sacramento.

The conference did provide a venue for one of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's more thoughtless gaffes, particularly in light of his father's service as a Nazi stormtrooper. According to a report in the Sacramento Bee, Schwarzenegger was invited and declined, but perhaps too nicely:
The governor's situation began innocently enough. He was invited by something called the European American Culture Council to attend a two-day conference this week in Sacramento, before it was canceled amid controversy.

The invitation included references to the group's agenda -- insisting the Holocaust never happened. The governor's staff said no thanks, but sent Arnold's best wishes for a "successful conference." The letter immediately appeared on revisionist Web sites as an endorsement by the governor. "We receive 10,000 requests for the governor, and that was the standard response," said Rob Stutzman, the governor's spokesman. "The name of the group sounded innocuous. It wasn't until later that the true nature of this group was brought to our attention." Another letter was quickly written by the governor's staff, insisting Schwarzenegger would never endorse such nonsense. "The governor's views on this are well-known," Stutzman said.

In any event, while the governor may not have been too observant, the entire incident set off some worthwhile discussion and reflection in the Sacramento Bee newsroom, according to this report from the paper's ombudsman, Tony Marcano:
Should media give attention to Holocaust deniers?

It's one of the real dilemmas journalists must confront in dealing with far-right hate groups. Anytime we give them coverage, there's some likelihood that by giving them publicity, someone who might otherwise remain ignorant of them could actually be recruited into their belief system. Is it worth it?
Newsroom debate ensued -- should this conference, whose participants were to include some of the world's most notorious Holocaust deniers, get any further attention? Some readers argued that decent folks were entitled to know that a hate group was planning to bring in anti-Semites from around the country and a few foreign nations to their community.

There's merit to that argument. There's also merit to the argument that giving hate groups a forum for their animus, even in the context that most people find them odious, lends credence to their views and feeds their life-sustaining paranoia.

... Should the media put a spotlight on racists, anti-Semites and other supremacists and allow them to hang themselves with their own words, or should hate groups be left under their rocks on the grounds that their blather could end up creating a weapon of mass deception rather than a noose?

This was a debate with which I have become all too familiar over the years. I first dealt with it in the late 1970s, when I was the editor (something of a punk, at age 21) of the little daily in Sandpoint, Idaho, some 25 miles north of the new arrivals at Hayden Lake who called themselves the Aryan Nations.

I described some of my early encounters with the dilemma in Chapter 3 of In God's Country:
The letters all arrived the same way: neat, clean, carefully typed in all capitals. It was the neatness -- and the capitals -- that made them distinctive from many of the letters to the editor that crossed my desk at the Sandpoint Daily Bee. But after awhile, it was easy to recognize the correspondence from Robert Mathews.

The Bee was really a small-town paper; we only published five days a week and the paper itself was sometimes only ten or twelve pages thick. We didn't get all that many letters to the editor, so we treasured the few we got. You wrote a letter to us, it was probably going to get published.

Robert Mathews, though, was a little different story.

Mathews sent us letters regularly, one about every three or four weeks, from his home in Metaline Falls. This was actually out of the Bee's circulation area, and we knew he sent the same letters to our sister paper, the weekly Priest River Times, and its cross-river competitor, the Newport Miner. Since we preferred to publish letters from people who lived among our subscribers, we had an easy excuse not to run them.

There were better reasons, though. Almost inevitably, Mathews' missives were filled with anti-Semitic rants about the "Zionist Occupation Government" and the international banking conspiracy, at other times attacking "shiftless blacks" whose welfare burden was killing the nation with taxes. Yes, we welcomed an open debate on the pages of the Bee; but we felt like we had to draw a line when it came to spreading hate and falsehoods.

Most of Mathews' letters went directly to the "round file." Because he wrote so regularly, though, I looked for opportunities to reward his doggedness, deciding I would run the letters if they appeared free of racist or anti-Semitic references. This, however, never did occur.

Robert Mathews' letters were part of a disturbing tide of racial hate, and bizarre radical-right belief systems, that we had observed rising in the Northwest in the 1970s. The phenomenon was a puzzling one, especially for those of us in the newspaper business, because we were uncertain how to respond to it. Were we simply observing a few loud-mouthed ranters wishing to attract attention to themselves? And would covering them or allowing their hate to spew on our pages just give them the publicity, and the foothold, they sought? Would reporting on them just encourage them?

This was not the only context in which we discussed the Aryan Nations in our newsroom. We also discussed -- with the publisher/owner, Pete Thompson, in the mix -- whether or not we should even cover the activities at the compound, as well as some of the hateful material its followers trafficked in beyond even letters to the editor. And we decided not to. With our resources limited in the first place, it seemed as though giving their fringe fantasies about creating a "white Northwest" was not just a waste of space, but something that might actually help distribute those views and, worse yet, recruit fresh followers.

The moral of this story, of course, is that Robert Mathews was not just a typical writer of letters to the editor. Some four years later, he would organize a group of extremist revolutionaries who called themselves the Bruders Schweigen (Silent Brotherhood), more popularly known as The Order. By the time their yearlong crime spree was done, they ended up with an astonishing record of havoc in their wake: some twenty-odd bank robberies and armored-car stickups, including the largest take in an overland-carrier holdup in history ($3.6 million from a Wells Fargo armored car in Ukiah, Calif.); operating a large counterfeiting ring; and most notoriously, the assassination of Denver radio talk-show host Alan Berg.

As I noted in the book, the Daily Bee changed its policies by the time it was all over. In his last week alive, Mathews penned a long letter and sent it to a few newspapers, including the little paper in Sandpoint. A few days later, he was cornered by the FBI on Whidbey Island and went out in a blaze of glory, remaining inside his cabin after an incendiary device was lobbed into it. The Bee finally ran that letter.

What that incident, and many subsequent cases, convinced me of was this: We can never let our guard down when it comes to fascists and fascism -- especially when it is the real thing. We dismiss them as inconsequential at our extreme peril.

Even this week, a Newsweek report illuminates (somewhat briefly) the resurgence of the far right in the past year, something that cropped up in a recent Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report piece that recorded a mild uptick in the numbers of hate groups. What even more of us are observing is a real surge in recruiting activity, which is always a harbinger of an increase in violence within the next year or so.

The problem is that the smoke from the 9/11 attacks has obscured the source of the same terrorist fires in our own back yard. Mark Pitcavage observes how foolhardy this approach is in a recent news story from Florida:
Apart from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, all terrorist activity in the United States over the past 40 years were conducted by domestic terrorists, said Mark Pitcavage, national director of fact finding for the Anti-Defamation League.

Right-wing extremists "pose the majority of terrorist threats we face today," Pitcavage told about 300 officers from eight Southern states attending a domestic terrorism conference keying on detection and response measures.

Domestic terrorists range from white supremacists to anti-abortion extremists to eco-terrorists. Pitcavage cited the sentencing Tuesday in Texas of William Krar, who was charged with stockpiling 800 grams of cyanide, machine guns and bombs.

"In every part of the country, this stuff is going on," Pitcavage said.

The piece also offered an astute observation from an Israeli intelligence expert, who likewise understands that the American far right has a great deal in common with Al Qaeda, since both hunger for the apocalyptic overthrow of the "corrupt" and "decadent" West:
International terrorism expert Sabi Shabtai, who served in the intelligence branch of the Israel Defense Forces, urged law enforcement officers to learn to "think like a terrorist" and create teams of officers who are willing to take unorthodox approaches, not just follow a textbook.

The war on terror is "the most complex, challenging war that the U.S. has ever had to face," Shabtai said. "The enemy continually mutates and reinvents itself."

Fortunately, it's clear that the editors and reporters of the Sacramento Bee now have a clearer understanding of this scope of the issue. As Tony Marcano explained in his piece:
Bee Assistant Managing Editor Scott Lebar, who oversees Metro coverage, said those questions are usually considered on a case-by-case basis. The paper didn't cover the revisionists' conference, he said, "because, really, is this something that needs an advance story, and can the paper in good conscience even think about a walk-up to a gathering of people getting together to mask hate by rendering it in some faux historical nonsense? No, of course not. But can we, should we, explain they exist and they want to meet here? Yes. Could we do that without giving them more weight than they deserve? Yes."

There are, he said, some general guidelines to achieve that. "To me, it boils down to this," Lebar said. "We shine light in the community, we try to help readers understand the world in which they live. That's our job. If the light we shine illuminates something good, it grows. If our light hits a cockroach, it scurries away."

There are always misgivings about the intensity of that light. Shine a light in one corner and you find a bug. Shine it in another and you wake up a bear. But it's better to let people know there's something lurking in the dark shadows, whether it's merely disgusting like a cockroach or potentially dangerous like a bear.

That still leaves the question of whether, using a strict interpretation of objectivity, that approach is fair. Should we not hear both sides of the story and then let the public decide? The hate groups don't see themselves as hateful, and they believe they're acting rationally, so shouldn't the media approach them with no preconceptions? Under that rationale, The Bee's only responsibility would have been to cover the revisionists' conference, allow them to state their alleged evidence and then have honest historians discuss the twists and flaws in that so-called evidence.

Objectivity, however, is not the only criterion for proper media coverage -- a notion many critics of the press fail to take into account. Context and perspective are also necessary. The Bee has no obligation to give voice to anyone skulking behind a veil of deceit and half-truths (hold the snide comments about whichever political party you dislike, please). If it did, the paper would have to cover every press conference convened by people claiming to have incontrovertible proof that the world is flat or that a particular ethnic group is all Satan's spawn. The media can be fair to them only by declining to exacerbate whatever childhood trauma, physiological imbalance or psychological disorder convinces them that such delusions are true.

To cite something that's actually true to life, imagine if the press had not taken a moral stance during the civil rights movement. We would have ended up with images of Ku Klux Klan members handing out candy to balance the horrific accounts of Southern blacks being mangled by attack dogs.

No pretense of objectivity here. There are within our society people who are just as morally bereft and potentially dangerous as any follower of al-Qaida, despite their belief that God and the truth are on their side (Nazis, slave owners and apartheid governments said that, too). The press has every right to ferret them out and give the public a whiff of their stink. It may not be pleasant, and it may not be objective, but it is responsible.

Actually, journalists have a responsibility to be genuinely objective -- that is, to favor objective fact and to report blatant falsehoods to their readers. The recent journalistic fetish with presenting an objectively true statement from one side and a blatantly false statement from its opposition, and presenting them side by side without comment, all under the pretense of being "balanced" or "objective," is not merely lazy and misleading, it's outrageous, because it gives falsehood an equal footing with fact.

But Marcano's central point is exactly right. There is, in fact, a real danger that giving liars like the Holocaust deniers and the neo-Nazis any kind of publicity at all will help them spread their poison and gain new followers. In fact, it's almost certain that this will happen to at least a minor extent. However, that problem is far outweighed by the extent to which the larger society can see this kind of activity for what it is. In this sense, the kind of reporting that's done is essential; if it's shallow reporting that resorts to a phony "balancing" act, then the more likely the extremists are to succeed; the more grounded and in-depth it is, the more likely you are to blunt any potential recruitment effect.

Worse, trying to create an information vacuum only leaves society even more vulnerable. Pretending they don't exist, for one thing, plays into extremists' own mythology, particularly the belief that the "mainstream media" don't "dare" to run their conspiracy theories because it's the "truth". It also means that the widespread opprobrium they should be hearing is absent. Haters love to believe they're carrying out what the rest of society really, secretly, wants, but no one dares say so because of "political correctness."

Ignoring the extremist right and the threat of violence it represents shouldn't be an option. But its very existence raises uncomfortable truths -- about ourselves, about our law-enforcement system, about the current "war on terrorism."

And refusing to confront them may prove to be very, very costly.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Krar's sentence

Those who have been following the Texas cyanide bomb case will be interested to know that the central figure -- 62-year-old William Krar, a New Hampshire transplant -- was sentenced today.

From the Houston Chronicle:
East Texas man gets 11 years for cyanide cache

NOONDAY -- A man who stockpiled an arsenal of illegal and chemical weapons at an East Texas storage facility was sentenced today to more than 11 years in federal prison while his common-law wife received nearly five years.

William Krar, 63, pleaded guilty in November to one count of possessing a dangerous chemical weapon and could have received life imprisonment. Judith Bruey, 55, had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess illegal weapons. She faced up to five years.

Krar, before being sentenced by U.S. District Judge Leonard Davis, said he never meant to hurt anyone.

"In my 63 years, I've never been in serious trouble. For the record, I'm neither a terrorist or a separatist. I've never desired to hurt anyone or the country that I love," Krar said, reading from a folded, yellow paper.

The preview of the sentencing from the day before observed the evidence to the contrary:
Law officers said Krar was a supplier of explosives, dangerous chemicals and high-powered guns.

"If you had a McVeigh type and a Krar type come together, you might have had a very big explosion," assistant U.S. Attorney Brit Featherston, lead prosecutor in Krar's case, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Monday's editions.

Krar's cache of weapons included nine machine guns, three silencers, 67 sticks of explosives, more than 100,000 rounds of ammunition, 800 grams of near-pure sodium cyanide and the acids to turn it into poisonous gas.

Featherston said he does not believe Krar was simply a collector of dangerous goods.

"The majority of what Krar possessed you only possess to kill and maim human beings," the prosecutor said.

I don't know a lot about federal sentencing guidelines, though most of the previous stories suggested that Krar was likely to get "less than 20 years" under them. So it appears, from the outside at least, that Krar's sentence was in the low to middle end of the range for this crime. This was, after all, a rarely prosecuted law that is intended to provide tough sentencing for making weapons of mass destruction.

In contrast, the recently arrested ELF terrorist Tre Arrow -- whose crimes may have been numerous, but who represented a significantly lesser threat -- faces up to 80 years in prison for the crimes he's been accused of.

[Some previous posts on the Krar case are here, here, here, here and here.]

Dawn of the Once-Dead

I've been slow to comment on the conviction of Matt Hale -- erstwhile leader of the World Church of the Creator -- on solicitation-of-murder charges involving a federal judge. That's partly because, though I observed the arrest when it occurred, I also pointed out at the time that WCOTC had become a truly fringe group with hardly any kind of serious reach, and Hale's conviction would almost certainly mean the group's demise.

On the other hand, maybe it's also worth remembering that these kinds of organizations seem to enjoy a vampiric half-life long beyond their normal lifespan. When a leader or even an entire group falters, there are always others ready to fill the vacuum.

Consider, for instance, the case of the National Alliance, which many of us who follow the extremist right were hoping was finally headed for history's trashbin after the 1992 demise of its founder and avatar, William Pierce. After all, this was the man who brought us both The Turner Diaries and the trail of bodies that followed its blueprint, as well as inspiring a host of "lone wolf" shooters like Buford Furrow with his sniper novel Hunter. Pierce's NA was also behind a number of far-right recruitment tactics such as promoting heavy-metal "white power" music. But in the years leading up to his death, the NA had been declining in energy, profile and ultimately membership, and many hoped that Pierce's passing would mean its final dissolution.

Instead, as I've reported previously, the National Alliance is staying alive if not thriving outright. A Chicago-area suburban paper recently ran a piece explaining that the NA's strategy for doing so involves changing its image in a way geared toward white-collar professionals who quietly harbor racial animosities:
The next face of hate?

Dave Neesan leans forward in the booth of an Elmhurst cocktail lounge, pulling copies of white separatist fliers out of a faux-leather portfolio.

He is a 46-year-old engineer who wears a suit and tie. He went to college. He just bought a home in Schaumburg.

And his organization, the National Alliance, is one of the fastest growing white nationalist groups in the country, a kind of Ku Klux Klan for the next generation.

Its ultimate goal is to create a place where only whites will live together in peace. A place where they can be proud of their European heritage.

He speaks of that world in derogatory stereotypes, without concern or acknowledgment of the offense his words may cause.

"A clean, white place, where you wouldn't see a lot of cops because you wouldn't need them," he says.

In one of his milder statements about minorities, he continues: "Where there wouldn't be any lip-flappin', chicken-wing slappin' rap music ... where you'd have meaningful art by white artists ... and children would be raised from an early age to respect their culture and society."

As the story explains, even though Hale is behind bars and the WCOTC apparently defunct, the NA is moving forward to fill the same niche in the ideological marketplace:
According to the Chicago-based Center for New Community, which tracks hate groups and helps communities organize against them, the KKK has chapters with varying degrees of activity in Prospect Heights, Carpentersville and West Dundee.

Many of Hale's former followers also have moved to a chapter of the National Socialist Movement in Schiller Park, said Devin Burghart, a researcher with the Center for New Community, the anti-hate organization.

With some members fearful of government prosecution like that against Hale, all of the groups are looking for ways to bring in new, young recruits to replace those who may have pulled back on activity, Burghart said.

That leaves the door open for one of the local leaders -- perhaps Neesan -- to take Hale's place as the state's most visible white activist.

"The (groups) are groping around for a new generation of haters and new avenues for recruiting people," Burghart said.

Of course, as I've recently discussed, there are many signs beyond even Hale's conviction that the WCOTC -- which already has enjoyed one return trip from the land of the dead -- is finally on its last legs.

But don't be surprised if some ghoul finds a way to bring them staggering back into our streets and alleys late at night again sometime in the future.

Will Roy Moore run?

Frederick Clarkson weighs in on the possibility that the Rev. Roy Moore -- the Culture Warrior who defied the law itself in an attempt to "defend the Ten Commandments" in Alabama -- may run for president:
Will Roy Moore crack the Bush base?

Clarkson at least confirms suspicions that Howard Phillips' far-right Constitution Party -- one of the original promoters of the "militia" concept and a significant nexus for far-right "constitutionalist" and related tax-protest beliefs -- is recruiting Moore to be its standard-bearer:
Meanwhile, the 57-year-old Moore is acting more and more like a candidate as he crisscrosses the country, speaking at gatherings of Christian rightists, home-schoolers and state conventions of the far-right Constitution Party, which was on 41 state ballots in the 2000 election, and is courting Moore to head its ticket. If he ran on the Constitution Party ticket, he would probably be on more state ballots than Nader this year. With 320,000 members it is the third-largest party in the U.S, in terms of registered voters.

It's worth noting, of course, that the Constitution Party continues to promote at its Web site the "official" candidacy of Michael Peroutka, a Florida fundamentalist pastor. Presumably, Howard Phillips -- who still calls the party's shots -- sees an even bigger payoff with a Moore candidacy.

Phillips is nothing if not canny. Moore's candidacy would generate tons of ink and airplay money can't buy for his little party, and almost certainly drive up both its profile and its membership. Which really is the problem with Moore running.

Liberals may cheer Moore on because he can do to Bush what Nader did to Gore, as Clarkson points out:
Will the dynamics of the race change if Moore throws his hat in the ring? Hastings Wyman, a former aide to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and editor of the Southern Political Report, thinks so. Wyman told Salon that he thinks Moore has the potential to "do to Bush what Nader did to Gore." Other Republican and Democratic strategists aren't so sure, but no one thinks Bush can stand much erosion in his base. Certainly some Republican leaders take Moore seriously enough to quietly court him, hoping to keep him in the party and preserve the president's Christian far-right constituency.

However, this may be a case of getting what we ask for. Moore's candidacy not only could expand the Constitution Party's reach, it could bring its extremist brand of politics into even closer contact with the broader conservative mainstream -- and all that implies.

It's certainly worth noting that, as Clarkson says, Moore enjoys rock-star status among the fundamentalist mainstream:
Whatever his final decision, clearly Moore's crusade has made him a national figure who is wildly popular on the Christian right. He has become a fixture of both mainstream and conservative Christian media from CNN to Pat Robertson's 700 Club. Charismatic and a proven vote getter, Moore won his race for an open seat as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court 878,480 to 726,348 in 2000. Now, as he barnstorms the country, he's galvanizing conservative Christians in a manner not seen since Oliver North was fired from his White House job in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal. Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund wrote in February that he has seen Moore rouse the crowds at major Christian right conventions from Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum to Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Moore was "treated like a rock star" by the Christian Coalition, "signing autographs and getting thunderous standing ovations." Last month Moore addressed a crowd of about 1,000 Great Falls, Mont. "The crowd was very enthusiastic," says Travis McAdam, a researcher with the Montana Human Rights Network. "People were definitely there to see him [Moore]. And really liked what they heard."

Republicans are obviously hoping Moore doesn't run. Democrats, if they're wise, should hope the same. The monster that would result might not be worth the short-term gain.

[Other previous posts on Moore here and here.]

Oklahoma City, 9/11, and the Face of Terror

[Parts 1 and 2.]

Part 3: The Murrah Mystery

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Oklahoma City bombing is how quickly it seems to have receded to the shadows of our national memory, even before the events of Sept. 11.

Compared to the national focus that has (appropriately enough) been directed toward 9/11, it sometimes seems as though we couldn't brush April 19, 1995 into the dustbin of history soon enough -- even though both, in fact, represent two facets of the most serious threat facing America in the coming century: Namely, terrorism on American soil.

Perhaps that's because of the difference in perpetrators. In the popular mind, 9/11 was committed by The Other: Brown-skinned Muslims, fanatics from the uncivilized hellhole of the Middle East. Oklahoma City, in contrast, was committed by one of us. By a boy next door who was one of those same war veterans to whom we pay lip service now.

However, we did our damnedest to make even Timothy McVeigh, eventually, into another kind of The Other. The mythology about McVeigh that emerged in the months and years after Oklahoma City became something of a comforting story: He was a freak, a lone wolf. The Murrah Bombing was an "isolated event."

That mythology has camouflaged the underlying reality: April 19, in fact, heralded the arrival of a new kind of threat to American security and, ultimately, its democratic institutions. This is asymmetric terrorism committed by highly corpuscular and extremely motivated actors unattached to any nation/state and who cannot be dealt with through military might.

Robert Wright, in his Slate thinkpiece "A Real War on Terrorism," explained it this way:
For the foreseeable future, smaller and smaller groups of intensely motivated people will have the ability to kill larger and larger numbers of people. They won't have to claim that they speak on behalf of a whole religion. They'll just have to be reasonably intelligent, modestly well-funded, and really pissed off. It may be hard to imagine a few radical environmentalists, or Montana militiamen, or French anti-globalization activists, or Basque separatists, or Unabomber-style Luddites, killing 100,000 people. Yet what makes this plausible is exactly what makes radical Islam such a formidable long-term threat: two enduring aspects of the evolution of technology.

These two aspects, as Wright describes, are "the growing accessibility of massively lethal munitions" and "the diverse threat posed by information technology."
... [T]he point isn't to minimize radical Islam, which is probably the biggest single threat to American security of the next decade, if not longer. But as we address that threat on its own terms, we should be building a policy framework that will apply to the larger, more generic threat as well. This is especially true in light of the fact that the current phase of rapid change -- info revolution, globalization, etc. --is hardly over, and periods of rapid change tend to spawn intensely aggrieved groups.

It should be clear, in fact, that the Oklahoma City bombing was significant not merely because it represented the first serious terrorist attack on American soil, but because it heralded this deeper and far more threatening trend.

Unfortunately, there has hardly ever been any recognition of it in this light, certainly not in the mainstream media. Instead, the common understanding of Oklahoma City derives largely from the Justice Department's version of events that won in court for them in convicting Timothy McVeigh: that the bombing was committed by a tiny claque of conspirators comprising McVeigh and Terry Nichols and their lesser cohorts, Michael and Lori Fortier, and that there were no broader organizational ties or social significance. This made it easy to forget -- yet another "isolated event."

There's just one problem with that picture: The same version of events, offered by the Justice Department at Terry Nichols' trial, failed to convince the jury -- or for that matter, the judge (the same judge who oversaw McVeigh's trial).

Indeed, the very reason that Nichols is now on trial again in Oklahoma is that the federal jury found compelling reason to believe that, just as Nichols' defense attorneys suggested, he was not alone in aiding Tim McVeigh.

In other words, the mystery of who committed the Oklahoma City bombing has never been fully resolved. The evidence, in fact, strongly supports the possibility that there are other co-conspirators who have gone uncaught.

I examined this problem in depth three years ago in a Salon piece titled "The mystery of John Doe 2". One of the main weaknesses in the government's case, as I described then, was the wealth of witness sightings of other men in McVeigh's company during the days before the bombing, especially as the bomb was being assembled. Most of these sightings, however, lacked physical evidence, and were perhaps dismissed because of the frequently flimsy nature of eyewitness accounts.

There were similar tantalizing clues, including the leg that wouldn't match up:
The weaknesses in the government's theory about how the bombing occurred go well beyond mere witness accounts. The FBI has never adequately explained, for instance, the bombing's rarely acknowledged 169th victim.

When sifting through the debris of the Murrah Building, workers encountered numerous body parts disattached from the bodies of their owners, including nine severed legs. But only eight of those legs were eventually matched up with the bodies to which they belonged.

The body belonging to the ninth leg -- apparently a dark-skinned person, according to the medical examiner's testimony in the McVeigh trial -- has never been found, leading investigators to conclude that whoever owned it was very near to the blast when it occurred. There is the possibility that it belonged to a random person walking by, but there are no missing persons on record associated with the Oklahoma blast, even after extensive searches of homeless service agencies in the area.

However, like most such clues, the extra leg was something of a red herring without anything further to accompany it. And the accompanying questions tended to obscure the most significant fact to emerge from the trial: The clear message from Nichols' defense team that there were other co-conspirators -- to be named, perhaps, later.

As Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, who worked as a consultant and investigator for Nichols' defense team, explained to me in an interview:
The blast zone for quite a ways out was just tremendous. ... The pillar that was closest to the truck, and it was less than 16 feet away, just shattered. I mean, it didn't even break, it just basically turned into powder. So it's very possible that somebody standing within 15 to 20 feet away from the truck would essentially be atomized and through some fluke of physics and randomness, that a leg was just flung someplace.

OK, I accept that, I accept that there probably is a 169th person, or 168 if you leave out the rescue worker who was killed.

The problem here is -- to me, the leg is not the most compelling evidence there were more people involved. The most compelling evidence is that Nichols has said there were more people involved.

... So let's set aside the leg, which I think gets people off on a wild goose chase. Let's look at the fact that there are a number of witnesses who said there were other people involved. There were a whole lot of witnesses who say that. I do think that's pretty compelling, and when you add to that -- although Nichols has never said it publicly for quoting, it's pretty clear from the representation of [defense attorney] Michael Tigar in front of the judge in the Nichols trial that Nichols is willing to name more names, if they don't put him on trial for his life.

I described this in more detail in the Salon piece:
Even more problematic is McVeigh's account of how the bomb was constructed. He claims in American Terrorist that he and Nichols alone managed to load several tons of liquid jet fuel and ammonium nitrate into the Ryder truck and mix it into lethal explosive all in the span of three hours. Considering the difficulty of such work -- particularly that of mixing the chemicals -- McVeigh's account stretches the limits of credulity well beyond breaking.

A more reasonable explanation for the construction of the bomb can be found in the testimony at Terry Nichols' trial. Charles Farley, a local sporting-goods rental shop worker, told the courtroom that he passed by Geary Lake at the time the bomb was being built, and saw not only the Ryder truck, a two-ton farm truck loaded with white bags of fertilizer and a car similar to McVeigh's getaway car, but at least five men working around the scene.

"Initially, when I got to the gate, there was one individual standing at the back of the farm truck, at the back left corner of the farm truck," Farley testified. "I seen three individuals standing down between the Ryder truck and the brown car, one of them standing in the -- in the road just a little bit, one of them leaning against the front of the Ryder truck and the other one just kind of standing between them."

Farley said he made to drive out of the area, pulling just beyond a gate nearby. "As soon as I was out, I seen an individual walking alongside of the farm truck. He was probably at the cab when I first seen him. And I was really going slow. I mean, I was just creeping. And I was going to roll the window down and ask him if he needed some help. And -- give me kind of a dirty look and I decided, well, if you're going to be that way, me too, and I'm just going to leave; so I just drove away."

Farley said he couldn't identify any of the other men, but he got a clear view of the man who shot him a look. Nichols' defense attorneys handed him a photo of a gray-bearded man and asked if that was him, and Farley said it was. The Rocky Mountain News later tracked down the identity of the man in the photo and found it was a sixtyish member of a local Kansas citizens' militia group named Morris Wilson.

Strangely, prosecutors did not attempt to rebut Farley's testimony, which came on the last full day of defense testimony. It was a crucial error in judgment. The jury convicted Nichols, but only of the lesser crime of taking part in the conspiracy and involuntary manslaughter, eschewing the murder and bombing charges that would have brought him the death penalty. Several of the jurors later said that Farley's testimony had convinced them that there was a wider conspiracy.

The jurors were not alone. In the sentencing phase of the trial, Judge Matsch himself indicated he was not convinced that everyone involved in the bombing had been brought to justice when he offered to lighten Nichols' life sentence in exchange for information about other participants. He said many questions about the case remained unanswered, adding: "If the defendant in this case, Mr. Nichols, comes forward with answers or information leading to answers to some of these questions, it would be something that the court can consider in imposing final sentence," Matsch said.

Tigar demurred in this offer because he was aware that Oklahoma officials intended to try Nichols if the federal courts failed to deliver a capital conviction and death sentence. Which is why Terry Nichols is currently standing trial in Oklahoma City and is again fighting the death penalty.

Berlet believes that federal prosecutors indeed blew the case -- but did so well before Nichols even went on trial:
The other thing, of course, is that the Fortiers are liars. All you have to do is look at the record of their various testimonies to see that they don't add up. Their story was constantly changing.

I think the Fortiers were much closer to the plot than Nichols was. I think Nichols got browbeaten into it.

Why would the government not want to know? It's because you know Timmy did it, and Nichols turned himself in. And the Fortiers you gave immunity. Well, where do you go? If you open it up beyond that, you have to admit that you shouldn't have given the Fortiers immunity. You should have given Nichols immunity -- he would have rolled over on McVeigh, the Fortiers and the other people. So it was a tremendous error of judgment to give the Fortiers immunity.

To me that is the simplest explanation. There's no giant conspiracy here -- there's an embarrassment that they rushed to give the Fortiers immunity when they shouldn't have. They should have just sat on their hands for a couple of days and see what percolated up. And it would have turned out that Nichols would have been the better government witness. But they screwed that -- you can't take back an immunity offer.

Of course, the outcome of Nichols' trial was largely treated as something of a "glitch" -- an anomalous failure on the part of federal prosecutors. Hardly anyone in the media seemed to recognize that in fact a huge hole had been blown in the popular script about Oklahoma City -- the one portraying it as the maniacal act of a handful of lone-wolf types, hardly suggestive of a larger problem. On the contrary, there may indeed have been not just a John Doe No. 2, but also Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Berlet expressed these thoughts as well:
I think that there's a very strong possibility that there was a very clandestine and limited but larger network of people than four who were involved in helping each other remain underground and plan different anti-government activities.

I think what you have here is substantial evidence that the government in fact did not do a good case of investigation. You can't dispute that it was a broad net that was thrown, but there were big holes in the net. So the argument says there were all of these interviews and all of these, you know, we tracked down every lead, but they didn't analyze it. Or if they did analyze it, they decided at some point to stop with the four they had.

The story is that, for whatever reason, whether it was because they had too much evidence to collate -- which can happen in a case, to make sense of it -- that somewhere along the line, somebody made the political decision to stop at four. And from that decision forward, and even if that was an unstated decision.

Even Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose view of the case is from a broader perspective, believes the evidence is far from conclusive that McVeigh and Nichols acted alone:
"I think it's not a closed case ... I think that certainly there's the possibility that there are two or three or perhaps more people out there still. I absolutely don't think that's certain. That said, I think there's no question there are unanswered questions."

What makes this especially the case are the reports that Nichols, through his lawyers, tried to get the current Oklahoma charges dropped in exchange for information about other conspirators. The Oklahoma prosecutors, however, declined the offer and proceeded full steam ahead.

The truth, in any event, may finally emerge from the Oklahoma courts later this spring or summer, when the verdict comes in on Terry Nichols' state trial. Regardless of whether he is convicted of a capital offense, whatever information he may have on other participants in the bombing is likely to come into play during the sentencing phase, when it is almost certain to be used as a bargaining chip.

If that occurs, then it will be irrevocably clear that much of what is popularly believed about the Oklahoma City bombing -- especially the notion that everyone involved has been brought to face justice -- is a phantasm.

This goes beyond simply the question of who and how many were involved. Indeed, the core of the popular mythology, that Oklahoma City was an "isolated event," is similarly hollow.

Americans -- because they have wrapped Oklahoma City into a tidy and readily disposed package separate from the mass death of Sept. 11 -- have never really faced up to the fact that the terrorist threat they now confront does not only come wrapped in the traditional mask of the foreign enemy, the readily demonized Other. It comes in many forms, among them the extremists in their own midst who, even after conspiring to build a bomb that wipes out a federal building and 169 lives, blend back into the populace at large with relatively little effort.

These are terrorists who in fact share an identical agenda with Al Qaeda and the dozens of other potential terrorist threats, including such cult-based radicals as Aum Shinrikyo. Their beliefs are uniformly apocalyptic: that Western Civilization is hopelessly corrupt and must be brought down by any means necessary in order for a "new age" fitting their own particular vision to blossom in its place. Superfortress America, they believe, can be shaken at its foundations by attacks that cause mass deaths and undermine its core values and institutions, most of all the belief that a democratic society can be a secure one.

Of course, one of the chief reasons the public has not faced either Oklahoma City or its larger significance is because the simpler American worldview -- the one in which every threat can be confronted with our military might -- is somehow more comforting, probably because of its familiarity and seeming certainty, and we cling to it with all our might ... even as, every day, the unfolding disaster in Iraq brings fresh evidence that this too is a lie.

We are abetted in this belief by a complacent media content to regurgitate conventional wisdom and preferred scripts, trumpeting threats from abroad while blithely relegating domestic terrorism to the memory hole.

Some recent attempts to explain Oklahoma City that have gained media circulation, in fact, have contributed significantly to muddying our understanding of what happened April 19. But, as we will see, these too are only more recent permutations of the same irrational conspiracism that inspired the bombing in the first place.

Next: New Conspiracy Theories

[Cross-posted at The American Street.]

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Up the chain

Here is evidence that the torture of Iraqi prisoners (as previously suggested) may well proceed to the highest levels of the chain of command:

Radio personality Joe Ryan, who posts an online diary from Iraq and has been involved with prisoner interrogation, has discussed at length some of the other people interrogating prisoners at Abu Graib. In his April 13 entry, he named someone of particular interest:
"Wild" Bill Armstrong is one of our interrogators. He and I are both in the Force Protection section. Bill is married with five kids and a devout Christian, father, and husband. He arrived here two weeks before I did. Bill knows interrogation and reporting doctrine better than anyone here. Of course it was his career in the army and now he teaches at the school house in Arizona when he is not over here playing in the sand. I see Bill and know there are some incredible people in America. Here is a man who has already served in the military for 22 years, has a bunch of children, good job, and decides that he is needed over here so heads over to contribute. Politically, Bill makes Rush Limbaugh look like a flaming liberal by comparison. He is also leaving here after his R&R and will become the division cage site lead out in Fallujah.

The "school house in Arizona" is almost certainly Fort Huachuca, whose prisoner-interrogation course was described a year ago in ArmyLINK News:
FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. (Army News Service, Feb. 24, 2003) -- A new course at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center began last month to train soldiers how to extract intelligence from Al Qaeda detainees.

The Intelligence Support to Counter Terrorism course began Jan. 27 to specifically train the next rotation of National Guard and Army Reserve military intelligence soldiers heading to Guantanamo.

The course resulted from a visit to Guantanamo Bay a few months ago by Brig. Gen. John Custer, U.S. Army Intelligence Center and Fort Huachuca acting commander. He returned from the detainee facility there convinced that the military intelligence soldiers on the ground needed to be better equipped to gather information.

After briefing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on the limited training the intel soldiers had to obtain critical information from Al Qaeda, the Intelligence Center devised a new course to help support the global war on terrorism.

This, of course, raises an immediate question: How much does Rumsfeld know about the interrogation program put into place at Abu Ghraib? How much planning went into this program? And did he ever brief the president?

Amnesty International today called for a thorough and independent investigation of the Abu Ghraib atrocities, observing that this is not an isolated case:
Amnesty International has received frequent reports of torture or other ill-treatment by Coalition Forces during the past year. Detainees have reported being routinely subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during arrest and detention. Many have told Amnesty International that they were tortured and ill-treated by US and UK troops during interrogation. Methods often reported include prolonged sleep deprivation; beatings; prolonged restraint in painful positions, sometimes combined with exposure to loud music; prolonged hooding; and exposure to bright lights. Virtually none of the allegations of torture or ill-treatment has been adequately investigated by the authorities.

Human Rights Watch today demanded the same:
The promised U.S. investigation into the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners should not stop with the lower-level soldiers who were immediately involved, Human Rights Watch said today. The United States should also investigate the superiors of these soldiers to see whether they ordered or knowingly tolerated these abuses.

Indeed, this investigation should include every level of the chain of command. Anything less will constitute a cover-up.

[Many thanks to Joel S. for the Ryan/Huachuca tip.]