Saturday, February 05, 2005

Hiding the wires

I was amused by the claims that George W. Bush wore a listening device under his jacket in the first two of his three debates with John Kerry, but recognized that, at the time, the evidence in the case was largely speculative. I was waiting to see if the press would do its job and investigate the matter thoroughly.

Turns out they did, according to a report from David Lindorff at Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting. Problem is, they didn't tell the public what they had uncovered: that Bush almost certainly did, in fact, use such a device.

The suspicions were raised primarily in a series of Salon stories, many of them by Lindorff and featuring in the last installment the testimony of a NASA scientist who, it turns out, had also been talking to reporters from the New York Times:
At that point, Dr. Robert M. Nelson, a 30-year Jet Propulsion Laboratory veteran who works on photo imaging for NASA's various space probes and currently is part of a photo enhancement team for the Cassini Saturn space probe, entered the picture. Nelson recounts that after seeing the Salon story on the bulge, professional curiosity prompted him to apply his skills at photo enhancement to a digital image he took from a videotape of the first debate. He says that when he saw the results of his efforts, which clearly revealed a significant T-shaped object in the middle of Bush's back and a wire running up and over his shoulder, he realized it was an important story.

Eventually his discovery made its way to the attention of the Times. The story was ready to run in late October, but was reportedly killed because of its proximity to the election:
Times science writer William Broad, as well as reporters Andrew Revkin and John Schwartz, got to work on the story, according to Nelson, and produced a story that he says they assured him was scheduled to run the week of October 25. "It got pushed back because of the explosives story," he says, first to Wednesday, and then to Thursday, October 28. That would still have been five days ahead of Election Day.

An indication of the seriousness with which the story was being pursued is provided by an email Schwartz sent to Nelson on October 26 -- one of a string of back-and-forth emails between Schwartz and Nelson. It read:

Hey there, Dr. Nelson—this story is shaping up very nicely, but my_editors have asked me to hold off for one day while they push through a few other stories that are ahead of us in line. I might be calling you again for more information, but I hope that you'll hold tight and not tell anyone else about this until we get a chance to get our story out there.

Please call me with any concerns that you might have about this, and thanks again for letting us tell your story.

But on October 28, the article was not in the paper. After learning from the reporters working on the story that their article had been killed the night before by senior editors, Nelson eventually sent his photographic evidence of presidential cheating to Salon magazine, which ran the photos as the magazine's lead item on October 29.

Lindorff's piece has the evidence to support its claims (namely, the reporters' e-mails), which stand in direct contradiction to the Times' initial claims that the story never existed. It also produces evidence from other sources that the story existed:
In fact, Schwartz, Revkin and Broad, using Nelson's photographic evidence as their starting point, had made a major effort to put together the story of presidential debate misconduct and deception. Among those called in the course of their reporting, in addition to Nelson, who says he received numerous calls and emails from the team, were Cornell physicist Kurt Gottfried, who was asked to vouch for Nelson's professional credentials; Bush/Cheney campaign chair Ken Mehlman (information about this call was provided by a journalist at the Times); and Jim Atkinson, an owner of a spyware and debugging company in Gloucester, Mass., called Granite Island Group.

"The Times reporters called me a number of times on this story," confirms Atkinson. "I 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 by politicians."

At first, the Times tried to slough off the FAIR report by claiming that the story had never existed:
Referring to a FAIR press release (11/5/04) about the spiked story, Village Voice press critic Jarrett Murphy wrote (11/16/04), "A Times reporter alleged to have worked on such a piece says FAIR was totally off base: The paper never pursued the story."

Murphy told Extra! that his source at the nation's self-proclaimed paper of record -- whom he would not identify -- told him the information about the bulge seen under Bush's jacket during the debates, provided by a senior astronomer and photo imaging specialist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, had been tossed onto the "nutpile," and was never researched further.

Now, it seems, the Time "reader advocate," Daniel Okrent, is admitting on the Times Web site that the story indeed existed, and indeed was spiked because of its proximity to the election:
I checked into Lindorff's assertion, and he's right. The story's life at the Times began with a tip from the NASA scientist, Robert Nelson, to reporter Bill Broad. Soon his colleagues on the science desk, John Schwartz and Andrew Revkin, took on the bulk of the reporting. Science editor Laura Chang presented the story at the daily news meeting but, like many other stories, it did not make the cut. According to executive editor Bill Keller, "In the end, nobody, including the scientist who brought it up, could take the story beyond speculation. In the crush of election-finale stories, it died a quiet, unlamented death."

Revkin, for one, wished it had run. Here's what he told me in an e-mail message:

I can appreciate the broader factors weighing on the paper's top editors, particularly that close to the election. But personally, I think that Nelson's assertions did rise above the level of garden-variety speculation, mainly because of who he is. Here was a veteran government scientist, whose decades-long career revolves around interpreting imagery like features of Mars, who decided to say very publicly that, without reservation, he was convinced there was something under a president's jacket when the White House said there was nothing. He essentially put his hard-won reputation utterly on the line (not to mention his job) in doing so and certainly with little prospect that he might gain something as a result -- except, as he put it, his preserved integrity.

Revkin also told me that before Nelson called Broad, he had approached other media outlets as well. None -- until Salon -- published anything on Nelson's analysis. "I'd certainly choose [Nelson's] opinion over that of a tailor," Revkin concluded, referring to news reports that cited the man who makes the president's suits. "Hard to believe that so many in the media chose the tailor, even in coverage after the election."

The truth of the matter is that killing a story that could affect the outcome of the election simply because it could affect the outcome of the election is an abandonment of one's duties as a journalist dedicated to publishing the truth and adequately informing the public. It would be one thing if the evidence was indeed speculative; but the evidence presented by Nelson and the Times' other sources, in fact, was well past speculation. It was, in fact, highly substantive.

There's no other way of putting it: This is a gross dereliction of its Fourth Estate role as a public watchdog by the Times.

UPDATE: Following up on Times executive editor Bill Keller's explanation (someone in comments notes that he has remarked elsewhere to the effect that "lots of stories don't make the Times"), I thought it worth noting just which stories the Times deemed more newsworthy regarding its coverage of the campaign on Oct. 28, 2004:

A fluff piece on John Kerry and the Boston Red Sox

A scintillating piece on how well campaign-finance reform has worked

A thumbsucker on the political ramifications of the intelligence overhaul

Yeah, those were much more newsworthy than highly damning evidence that the president cheated during the debates.

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