Feb 11 2005

Okrent Charges Extra! With "Distortion"

Daniel Okrent, public editor of the New York Times, today sent a letter to Extra! editor Jim Naureckas in response to Extra!‘s story, “The Emperor’s New Hump: The New York Times Killed a Story That Could Have Changed the Election– Because It Could Have Changed the Election,” by Dave Lindorff.

The story, about the Times‘ spiking a story about Bush wearing a device under his suit during the presidential debates, appeared in Extra!‘s January/February 2005 issue, and can be read online at http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=2012. The article includes a sidebar presenting Okrent’s take on the controversy.

Okrent’s letter follows, along with a response from Lindorff:

* * *

Dear Mr. Naureckas,

Having been directed to it by many of your readers, I have read Dave Lindorff’s article about the Times‘ spiking of the John Schwartz/Andrew Revkin article on the apparent bulge beneath President Bush’s suit during the first presidential debate.

I consequently retrieved the original version of the story Mr. Lindorff mentions in his Extra! article, as it was submitted to the paper’s top editors. At no point does it come anywhere near to “exposing how George W. Bush had worn an electronic cueing device in his ear and probably cheated during the presidential debates,” as Mr. Lindorff claims it did. The article established that Robert Nelson said there was something underneath the president’s suit, but very specifically noted that Nelson himself acknowledged that the bulge could have been, as the authors wrote, “any number of things, including a back brace.”

It is not unreasonable to argue that the Times should have run the article. It is a distortion of the truth to say that it “exposed” anything, and an outright falsehood to say that it indicated Mr. Bush “probably cheated during the presidential debates.”

I do hope you will promptly publish this letter on the FAIR website, as I will be doing on my own. I believe any other course of action would be decidedly unFAIR.

Yours sincerely,

Daniel Okrent

Public Editor

N.B. Any opinions expressed here, unless otherwise attributed, are solely my own.

* * *

Lindorff responds:

I requested, repeatedly, from the New York Times and the reporters involved in writing it, a copy of the killed story, but was told that this was a “major no-no” at the newspaper of record.

It is a little awkward having to argue with someone who claims to be looking at something which he and his publisher won’t let me look at too.

That said, I did go to sources whom the Times reporters had gone to in their reporting work, including spyware experts, who said they had told the Times in no uncertain terms they were quite confident of what the device was.

As for Nelson, I spoke with him at length, and while it is true that he never said what the device was, he was pretty certain, given the wire going up over the shoulder, that it was an electronic device.

The more important point, however, is that whether it was a cueing device, an atrial defibrillator or a back brace, the public had and continues to have a right to know what it was. Any one of these things would indicate a profound disability on the part of the president– either intellectual, medical or skeletal.

Equally important, and a point that Okrent conveniently ignores, is the fact that Nelson’s photos prove without a scintilla of doubt–as reporter Andy Revkin courageously observes in his initial published comment to Okrent– that the president, the White House and the Bush/Cheney campaign lied, blatantly and repeatedly, regarding the object under the president’s back, which they alternately described as “Internet conspiracies,” “grassy knoll” thinking, a wrinkle in the jacket or a wrinkle in the underlying shirt.

I found it interesting that Okrent chose to use the words “distortion” and “falsehood” to describe my charges. As he put it: “It is a distortion of the truth to say that [the killed story] ‘exposed’ anything, and an outright falsehood to say that it indicated Mr. Bush ‘probably cheated during the presidential debates.'”

In fact, the article and accompanying photos (which Okrent fails to mention) did very clearly “expose” the president’s lie, and given the strong likelihood that the device seen on his back was part of a cueing device, it is hardly a falsehood to say that the article indicated that he “probably” cheated in the debates.

Apparently it is easy for Okrent and the Times to accuse critics of being liars, but not a president running for re-election.

One would think and hope that a publication like the Times would consider such behavior by the president–particularly as the strong likelihood is that it was a cueing device and an effort to cheat in the debates–to be a fit subject for a pre-election story, if the object of the paper is to inform the electorate about matters of pressing concern.

In any event, surely the paper should have gone after this story seriously–or just published what its reporters had written–after the election was over.

It has not done this. In fact, it went ahead and published a mocking and light-hearted “reporter’s notebook” item by one of its Washington correspondents after the election, making a joke out of the work its two science reporters had done, and out of Mr. Okrent’s “investigation.”

Dave Lindorff