This Sunday the New York Times' Bill Keller got dressed down on the paper's letters page, with scores of readers taking the executive editor to task for being evasive in his previous explanation regarding why--and for how long--the Times held back publishing its December 2005, Pulitzer Prize-winning scoop about the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping program under president Bush. A program recently deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge. At the time of publication in 2005 readers were told the story, which the White House pleaded the Times not to publish, had been delayed for "a year." But last week Times public editor, Byron Calame, confirmed the story had been held for 14 months, which, as many had suspected, meant the Times could have published the scoop during the height of the 2004 presidential campaign.
When Calame asked Keller why the paper had reported (vaguely and inaccurately) that the story had been held "a year", Keller conceded, "It was probably inelegant wording." Adding, "I don't know what was in my head at the time." When Calame pressed Keller whether the inelegant wording ("a year") and the sensitivity of the election-day timing issue had been discussed internally, Keller responded improbably, "I don't remember."
That was too much for some Times readers.
"It is depressing to think that the executive editor of The Times would even be able to speak this way," wrote Holly Ketron from Princeton, N.J., just one of many who lectured Keller in print about the proper role of journalists in a democracy.
Depressing, indeed. But even more depressing is the fact the eavesdropping story was just one of several legitimate news stories during the closing weeks of the 2004 campaign that were ignored by mainstream press outlets; stories that would have clearly hurt the Bush campaign. Stories such as the on-going Valerie Plame leak investigation, the tale of Saddam Hussein's hunt for yellowcake uranium, the looming military battle for Fallujah inside Iraq, and Bush's mysterious bulge spotted during the televised debates. I detail the media's disturbing, look-the-other-way approach from 2004 in Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush.
• Time and Valeria Plame
In 2004 Time magazine's Matthew Cooper got caught up in the special prosecutor's CIA leak investigation. Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury subpoenaed Cooper to find out who leaked the Plame identity to him. He and Time initially refused to cooperate. Eventually Cooper agreed to testify during the summer of 2005 after receiving a waiver from his source Karl Rove assuring him it was okay to disclose their confidential conversation. Of course, Cooper could have asked for that same waiver in 2004 which would have quickened the pace of the investigation significantly. But Cooper did not, according to a Los Angeles Times report, because "Time editors were concerned about becoming part of such an explosive story in an election year."
• NBC and Fallujah
On Nov. 4, two days after the nationwide presidential vote, NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw reported, "In Iraq, the American forces have been poised to make a major assault on Fallujah. We all anticipate that could happen at any moment." He asked Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, "What about other strategic and tactical changes in Iraq now that the election is over?" (Emphasis added.) Said Miklaszewski, "U.S. military officials have said for some time that they were putting off any kind of major offensive operation in [Fallujah] until after the U.S. elections, for obvious political reasons."
So according to NBC, military planners had been telling reporters "for some time" that, in what appeared to be a blatant attempt to boost Bush's domestic fortunes, the bloody offensive to try to retake Fallujah was going to be postponed "for obvious political reason" until after the U.S. Election Day. The problem was that prior to Nov. 2, nobody at NBC--not Brokaw, not Miklaszewski--actually reported that fact to viewers as they pondered their presidential pick. (The go-slow approach to Fallujah proved to be a wise public relations move for Republicans since November 2004 became the single deadliest month for U.S. servicemen and women serving in Iraq; 137 died.)
•CBS and Saddam's hunt for yellowcake uranium
Inn the wake of the embarrassing 2004 Memogate scandal, the network announced a 30-minute report by veteran correspondent Ed Bradley examining the administration's faulty claims about Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons capabilities was being pushed back until after the election. CBS News president Andrew Hayward, under fire from conservative critics for the network's allegedly liberal ways, announced it would have been "inappropriate to broadcast the WMD report so close to the presidential election." [Emphasis added.] The election was six weeks away at the time of the unusual announcement.
•The New York Times and the Bush Bulge
The story was hatched when some careful viewers went back and watched the first presidential debate again and noticed, with the aid of a video freeze frame, the outlines of a bulge protruding out of the back of Bush's suit jacket, between his shoulder blades. Suspicious observers noted Bush's debate advance team had insisted that no cameras be positioned behind Bush or Kerry during the debate. But Fox News ignored the request and one of its cameras caught an image of Bush as he stood at the debate lectern, capturing the clear bulge under his jacket.
When Bush aides were pressed for a serious response to the bulge question (the TV image did not lie, a shadowy bulge was obvious), aides alternatively insisted the controversial image had been "doctored," then that it was merely a "badly tailored suit," a "poorly tailored shirt", and the presidential tailor responsible had been fired. Asked specifically by the New York Times whether the bulge was a bullet proof vest, a Bush aide insisted it was not; the president was not wearing one the night of the debate. It turned out none of those public pronouncements were true. (The bulge was later confirmed to be a bullet proof vest.)
Intrigued by the unfolding unfolding, Robert Nelson, a 30-year Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist who works on photo imaging for NASA's various space probes and is an international authority on image analysis, began to do some at-home research on the bulge image. Nelson, with no partisan ax to grind, took a video image of Bush's back captured from the first debate and, using the same methods used to analyze images taken from spacecrafts, greatly sharpened the details, and specifically the shadows.
Nelson quickly concluded the bulge was real. And the enhanced image of Bush from the debate Nelson created ended any speculation. It was irrefutable that Bush was wearing some sort of device across his back, complete with that liked like a wire snaking down Bush's back. Disturbed by the misleading explanations he had read from Bush aides in the press, Nelson forwarded his information to a New York Times science reporter, who was interested. Eventually, three reporters were assigned to the story.
According to the reporting of David Lindorff, writing for Fairness and Accuracy in Report's Extra!, Nelson was told by a Times reporters that the bulge article, complete with his compelling imagery, would run Oct. 28, five days before the election. Instead, on the night of Oct. 27 the story was killed. In an email the next day, one of the Times reporters apologized to Nelson: "Sorry to have been a source of disappointment and frustration to you." Two months later, executive editor Keller explained, "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." In other words, the Times article would have easily proven there was a bulge underneath Bush's jacket during the debates, which would have undercut all his campaign's public denials and thereby raised questions about Bush's credibility. But because the story could not authoritatively say what the bulge was (and because Bush aides still refused to acknowledge its existence), the article was not worth printing.
As for Keller's insistence the story died a "quiet, unlamented death," that was not true. At least one of the reporters assigned to the article, Andrew Revkin, publicly expressed his frustration with the decision to kill the story, noting the oddity of accepting the Bush campaign's flimsy explanation about a tailor's mistake over the word of an esteemed scientist who produced images that were impossible to ignore. The Times' public editor later said he also thought the paper should have run the bulge story.
Meanwhile, can anyone think of a single bad-news-for-Kerry story that news outlets politely sat on during the 2004 campaign?
UPDATE: : As pointed out in the comments below, I should not have used the word "confirmed" when writing about the bulge episode. i.e. That it was later confirmed Bush was wearing a bullter proof vest the night of the first debate. That fact was reported by The Hill magazine, citing an anonymous source. Lots of people don't buy that explanation. Go here and here to read more about the bulge.