Almost as astonishing as the likelihood that President Bush cheated and wore a device–most likely a wireless magnetic induction hearing device–during his three presidential debate appearances-and definitely lied about what was under his jacket–is the fact that the nation’s two leading newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, had the story but failed to report it in any serious way.
While both papers did mention the issue once it had appeared in Salon.com, both, along with the rest of the mainstream media, also treated it as a joke, an “internet conspiracy,” which was the line put out by the White House and Bush/Cheney campaign in an intense campaign designed to keep the potentially explosive story from going anywhere.
Now, in an article in Extra!, the media criticism journal published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the inside story of the killing by senior editors of this important story about presidential cheating is exposed (go to: www.fair.org/).
It all began when Robert Nelson, a leading astronomer and photographic analysis expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who works on the Cassini Saturn project, saw the first story in Salon speculating about a curious “bulge” on Bush’s back following the first presidential debate. Nelson decided, out of scientific curiosity, to snap a digital photo of the president’s back from a video of that debate, and subject it to the same enhancement process that he routinely uses to enhance photos taken by NASA space probes–primarily enhanced edge definition and enhanced contrast. The results, available on Extra!’s website and also on my own website, This Can’t Be Happening! (go to: www.thiscantbehappening.net), were dramatic. What looked like a curiously angular bulge in the video is seen clearly to be an elaborate back harness with a wire snaking up over the right shoulder.
Nelson, shocked at what he’d uncovered, immediately tried to notify the media. He first went to two local papers where he had some connection–the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh, PA, where he had gone to college, and the Star-News in Pasadena, home of JPL and Nelson himself. Neither paper would touch the story, so Nelson went to the Los Angeles Times. There, he says the paper diddled for four days and did nothing. Nelson went next to veteran science writer William Broad at the New York Times, where at least initially he had better luck. Broad passed the story to two Times science writers, Andy Revkin and John Schwartz, who went out and reported further on it.
My own investigation, which included tracking down Revkin’s and Schwartz’s sources, showed that they had gone to scientists at Cornell (to confirm Nelson’s reputation), the Bush campaign, and to spyware experts and makers of devices similar to what Nelson had found under the presidential jacket. It was a major story they developed, and on the week before election day, it was ready to run–first on Tuesday, Oct. 26, and then, after being bumped by another Times investigation–the story about the unguarded cache of high-density explosives in Iraq–on Thursday, Oct. 28.
Then something happened. According to Times sources, on Wednesday evening, when the story was typeset and ready to go, senior editors killed it, claiming it was “too close” to the election. The Extra! article includes email messages from one of the Times reporters to JPL’s Nelson apologizing for the killing of the story.
While Times sources initially told a Village Voice media writer in December that there never was a story, and that Nelson had been consigned to the “nut pile” when he called, Times ombudsman Dan Okrent later, in an article on his website (but not published in the Times), confirmed that there had been a fully reported story done, but that it had been killed (though he claims simply that the story “did not make the cut” and “died a quiet unlamented death”).
The real story is not as innocent as Okrent claims, though. Nor was the story’s death so unlamented or quiet, even at the Times. In an email after the story was first bumped on Oct. 26, Schwartz wrote:
“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.”
Significantly, Schwartz didn’t say that the story was not ready, or that editors wanted more from him.
Later, on Sunday, Oct. 31, a day after I had run a story with Nelson’s evidence, along with his further photo analysis of pictures of the bulge from the later two debates, in Mother Jones online, Schwartz wrote Nelson saying:
“Congratulations on getting the story into Salon. It’s already all over the Web in every blog I’ve seen this morning. I’m sorry to have been a source of disappointment and frustration to you, but I’m very happy to see your story getting out there.”
Even in Okrent’s report, reporter Revkin takes the gutsy stand that the story was improperly killed, saying, “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.
He adds, in a dig at his own employer, “I’d certainly choose [Nelson’s] opinion over that of a tailor.” Referring to news reports, including one in the Times, that cited the man who makes the president’s suits (who at least initially supported the White House line that the bulge was a wrinkle and the result of bad tailoring), he says, “Hard to believe that so many in the media chose the tailor, even in coverage after the election.”
But the Times was not the only paper to kill the story.
After its editors had axed the piece, Nelson, on Thursday, Oct. 28, got a surprise call from Bob Woodward, asst. managing editor at the Washington Post. Nelson says the man who helped break the Watergate scandal that brought down Nixon’s presidency said he’d heard the Times had killed the story, and asked to see the scientist’s photos. Woodward had them checked out for authenticity, but then called Nelson back saying that he would have to jump “through a lot of hoops to get this story published,” and that it would take too long to do so before Election Day. Instead of going forward, he advised Nelson to go to me.
In the end, while Nelson’s remarkable photos ran on the web site of Mother Jones on Oct. 30, his dramatic evidence of Presidential cheating and lying and cover-ups never made it into the mainstream press–yet another dismal example of the cowardice and collapse of American journalism.
This timidity and complicity in the face of White House power continues as both the Times and the Post (and the rest of the media), continue to ignore the important story of what was under the president’s jacket, even after the poor excuse of an impending election no longer exists.
What effect publication of Nelson’s evidence in a major media outlet like the New York Times five days ahead of the election might have had on the outcome of the balloting is an interesting subject for speculation. Certainly the notion that such an exposé could have swayed 60,000 votes in Ohio doesn’t seem that unlikely. Surely, however, major evidence that the president cheated in the debates and then lied about it should be a matter of ongoing media concern as he moves into a second term pushing an agenda of continued wars abroad and dismantling of the Social Security system at home. Even if, as some have speculated, the device clearly shown in Nelson’s photos mounted on his back through all three debates is something medical–an atrial defibrillator or a device to administer strong painkillers–the public has a right to know what’s going on.
Yet all we hear from our much-touted but clearly overrated “free press” is silence.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org