Like the dramatic photos of Saturn’s rings and moons that he and his teammates have been analyzing and enhancing, the photos of President Bush’s back during the three debates, similarly subjected to NASA photo expert Robert Nelson’s skillful analysis, offer astonishing revelations. The president is a man wired to the hilt, and obviously so in need of electronic backup during his confrontation with John Kerry that he risked exposure twice even after a controvery had arisen about the bulge in his jacket following the first debate. (For a look at the pictures, go to www.motherjones.com.)
That said, this photo imaging tour-de-force by senior research scientist Nelson, a 30-year veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and past chair of the Division for Planetary Science of the American Astronomical Society, also reveals much about the sorry state of some of our most prominent daily newspapers.
Nelson, it turns out, initially examined, out of personal curiousity, a photo of Bush’s back, which he took with a digital camera off a video screen image of the first debate. When he discovered, working on his own time and on his own personal equipment, that under the jacket was a quite obvious electrical device, including a wire running up over the president’s right shoulder, he decided he had a big story on his hands.
Here, after all, was concrete evidence that the president had cheated in the three debates, and that the White House, the Bush/Cheney campaign, and the president himself-who had called the bulge in debate one the result of a “poorly tailored shirt”-had lied to the press and the public.
The response of the American media to this story, however, has been as dismal, politically biased and cowardly as Nelson’s was courageous.
First, Nelson, who lives and works in Pasadena, offered his story to the local daily, the Pasadena Star News. Such a big story by a Cal Tech/JPL scientist would seem a shoe-in for page-one play in his local daily, but he says the conservative paper’s editors shot him down. Likewise the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, from his hometown in Pennsylvania-the second place he offered the story to.
Deciding he might have better luck with the major media, which he assumed might be less tainted by politics, Nelson tried the nearby Los Angeles Times. No luck. Although he sent his photos to the paper’s editors, he says they “sat on them for four days” and never returned his phone call.
Nelson had better luck, at least initially, with the New York Times. Several reporters there took an interest, he says, “and they promised a story which was ready to go last Thursday, when it was yanked at the last minute by higher ups.”
A journalist who works at the Times confirms that the paper initially worked
with Nelson and had a story ready to run on last Thursday, but it was killed
by higher-up editors, who decided that it was too close to the election to
Finally, Nelson says he offered his photos of the first debate to the Washington Post. Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward (he of Watergate investigative reporting fame), actually personally called him back, Nelson says. “He said it would take too long for him to clear these images with his editors and he encouraged me to go to Salon.” (That being the online magazine where I initially broke the story about Bush’s bulge on October 8.)
Salon jumped at Nelson’s photos (its editors didn’t need to spend days ruminating on the political consequences of doing the right thing), running them with a short article that explained the techniques he used, and demonstrating yet again that the Internet has become the place where real journalism is happening, while the mainstream print media continue their slide into irrelevance.
Mother Jones magazine picked up the story from there, asking Nelson to apply the same techniques of analysis and enhancement to digital photos of Bush’s back to photo made from tapes of the other two presidential debates. The results were posted Saturday evening on the magazine’s website.
“I’m just really ticked that editors are saying they have to know what it is before they’ll ask the White House about it,” says a frustrated Nelson. “That’s way too high a threshold for pursuing this story.”
It remains to be seen whether the mainstream media, print and electronic, will have the intestinal fortitude to report before Election Day on Nelson’s findings and to display his photographs, now that the story is out there in two reputable publications.
At least we can expect the humorists-John Stewart, David Letterman and Gary Trudeau-to have fun with the new images, and the growing scandal. The humor section seems to be the only part of the mainstream media that recognizes the importance of, and the huge public interest in, this scandal.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” is published by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
He can be reached at: email@example.com