Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Bulge-gate correspondence: A New York Times insider e-mails answers about why the story was spiked, describes decision as a judgment call


Q:
I'm very troubled by this story from the group FAIR about the Times spiking a report-in-progress about the "mysterious"bulge in the back of Bush's jacket during the first presidential debate.

If a reporter could have gotten independent experts to express confidence in a common interpretation of that footage, then I think that very fact at least ought to have been in the paper. I can't understand why the Times wouldn't have gone full throttle to get that independent opinion, and I find it hard to believe reporters would have failed to get an up-or-down vote of confidence from an independent expert if they'd done that. So what did the other experts say, and if they didn't get a chance to say, then why not?

I believe the importance of this whispering-device story, if true, has been grossly underestimated everywhere I've read about it. I'm not thinking about the idea that our president is a cheater and/or that he isn't confident to speak for himself. I'm thinking that what Bush did, if he did it, was an act of contempt of the court of public opinion. This would be a striking denial of the people's democratic right to know who their president is. FDR disguised a physical handicap. Bush it seems disguised his person. And it's not the person who jogs, it's the person who argues national policy in cabinet with smart people who aren't easily limited to one question.

Of course, I'm familiar with the stance that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, but I'm worried about the Times' criterion for extraordinary here. If a high-level government imaging expert with good character references and no history of partisan activism states fervently on record that an observed image feature is real, and if other experts consider both that claim and the politically explosive interpretation of the feature uncontroversial, then I'd have thought that some kind of story about it ought to be on your front page.

I would like to know if the editors instructed or lettheir reporters solicit independent analyses of the footage or the image enhancement the NASA guy did. How long could it have taken to do one or both of these things? Do your top editors just not trust your science reporters to vet claims of such critical national importance? What are science journalists for?

A: The gist of the story was: NASA scientist concludes there was something under Bush's jacket.

The judgment of the higher editors was that either you already believed there was something under the jacket or the opinion of one NASA scientist wasn't going to change your mind.

I personally would have liked the story to have run, but it was not a bombshell story. It was probably not even going to be a page one story, and I doubt it would have had an effect on the election, because it did not and could not answer the important questions:
1. What was the thing?
2. What was Bush doing with it?

I actually thought the story had run until a friend asked me about it last month.

And where the heck would you find an independent image analyst? They're not in the yellow pages. The people who do this kind of stuff are either A) NASA people, B) military people or C) people who want to prove there's a face on Mars.

The gist of the story was: NASA scientist concludes there was something under Bush's jacket. The judgment of the higher editors was that either you already believed there was something under the jacket or the opinion of one NASA scientist wasn't going to change your mind.

This argument totally overlooks the legitimizing power of publication in the "newspaper of record," not to mention the ability of the paper not just to acknowledge the legs of a story but to bestow them. You don't wait to see if others regard an assassination of a foreign leader as important before you splash news of it on the front page. The editors judge it to be important and make it so. The major news outlets treated this story as frivolous and dubious, but where was the scrutiny to justify this judgment? Get me more than one NASA scientist. If one or two scientists is enough to convince you or an editor that something is real, and you think that real thing is important, then you should report it--along with the evidence that makes the case for you. I don't see why the power to change minds should come in to it. Why cover evolution then?

It was probably not even going to be a page one story, and I doubt it would have had an effect on the election, because it did not and could not answer the important questions:
1. What was the thing?

The FAIR story left me thinking at least one guy had no doubt in his mind what it was and knew other politicians who used the very thing. Was there nobody else like that out there to ask?

2. What was Bush doing with it?

Can you think of any legitimate use? Why is the white house denying it? I'd say this a question for Bush, not for an editor.


I actually thought the story had run until a friend asked me about it last month. And where the heck would you find an independent image analyst? They're not in the yellow pages. The people who do this kind of stuff are either A) NASA people, B) military people or C) people who want to prove there's a face on Mars.

How about academics? Private remote sensing companies? George Lukas' ILM? How subtle and esoteric could this image enhancement business have been?

1. Forget the "newspaper of record" crap. Our role in the universe is not to legitimize the news. Our role is to produce a newspaper, hopefully a very good one.
2. The editor, Bill Keller, decided this was not newsworthy. That was his judgment. It's an arguable judgment but not an outrageous one. Deal with it.

The FAIR story left me thinking at least one guy had no doubt in his mind what it was and knew other politicians who used the very thing. Was there nobody else like that out there to ask?

All that was pure speculation, nothing more, nothing less. The only fact is "there is something that looks like a cord running up his back." That was the fact when the image first came out and that was the only fact (plus "A NASA scientist thinks so, too") that we had after the image enhancement. If he had been able to pick out something new -- an antenna, an earpiece, something -- that would have advanced the story and it probably would have made it into the paper.

Can you think of any legitimate use? Why is the white house denying it? I'd say this a question for Bush, not for an editor.

There was nothing in the story that would have made Bush modify his denial. (At most, you would have gotten something like, "Dr. Nelson is welcome to his opinion, and I'm sure he does wonderful work on images from outer space, but I was not wearing a microphone.")


How about academics? Private remote sensing companies? George Lukas' ILM? How subtle and esoteric could this image enhancement business have been?

If this was so easy and obvious, why didn't you go out and do the story? I'm sure somewhere like Salon would have published it. You could still do the story. Watergate didn't prevent the reelection of Richard Nixon, but the scandal forced him to resign.


There is nothing magical about working at the New York Times. The people here are good, and yes, we have somewhat more resources than most publications, but in the end, it's still dialing the telephone and talking to people, looking up information, and writing stuff up in Microsoft Word. (And if you believe, "People will talk to you because you're the New York Times," that's often not true. Many times, people will be a lot more circumspect talking to us, because we are the New York Times, and for good reason. It's like standing in front of a crowd of people naked.)

The more you tell me the more reassured I get, but I also feel you're offering a lot of bad reasons among the good.

1. Forget the "newspaper of record" crap. Our role in the universe is not to legitimize the news. Our role is to produce a newspaper, hopefully a very good one.

Wrong. I can't help being an ambassador of the United States when I travel through the African bush and you guys can't help being the Times. The universe has picked your role for you, and you legitimize whether you like it or not--hence the hullabaloo about the centrifuge tubes.

2. The editor, Bill Keller, decided this was not newsworthy. That was his judgment. It's an arguable judgment but not an outrageous one. Deal with it.

Hey, I'll deal with it, but I also will continue to dream of a world where editors and the profession of journalism learns from its mistakes, when identified. I couldn't tell whether there'd been a mistake, but it's easy for me to imagine that conventional news judgment has weaknesses regarding science, just as the court system does. So here I wondered if non-science editors higher up lacked confidence in science writers' judgments about what constitutes a strong case and what kinds of scientific claims are even amenable to a strong case.

All that was pure speculation, nothing more, nothing less. The only fact is "there is something that looks like a cord running up his back." That was the fact when the image first came out and that was the only fact (plus "A NASA scientist thinks so, too") that we had after the image enhancement. If he had been able to pick out something new -- an antenna, an earpiece, something -- that would have advanced the story and it probably would have made it into the paper.

To me it's also about the strength of the conviction of the sources, their credibility and exactly how specific a conclusion they draw. Often it's important when the White House lies or covers things up, and this is a very suspicious thing to lie about, so even if it can't be determined what this thing was, I would have thought it newsworthy just to determine the thing isn't either of the two different things the White House said it was.

There was nothing in the story that would have made Bush modify his denial. (At most, you would have gotten something like, "Dr. Nelson is welcome to his opinion, and I'm sure he does wonderful work on images from outer space, but I was not wearing a microphone.")

You'd know better than I. But I would have thought it hard to predict what would be the downstream effects of the Times treating an object beneath the bulge as incontrovertible as anthropogenic global warming and highlighting the contradiction with the White House line.

(And if you believe, "People will talk to you because you're the New York Times," that's often not true. Many times, people will be a lot more circumspect talking to us, because we are the New York Times, and for good reason. It's like standing in front of a crowd of people naked.)

I have no trouble believing people are more circumspect, and I think you're implicitly acknowledging here the unusual power the Times wields.

Wrong. I can't help being an ambassador of the United States when I travel through the African bush and you guys can't help being the Times. The universe has picked your role for you, and you legitimize whether you like it or not--hence the hullabaloo about the centrifuge tubes.

I thought you might say something like that. We get criticized for acting arrogant, and here your criticism is basically that we didn't act arrogant and should have. News judgment here should not be "We want to throw it out there to legitimize it and provoke a response." but the same as any other news outlet: Do we think this is a story that merits the space and play?

Yes, the Times has bigger feet than most places and in that sense we have more responsibility to be responsible.

but
it's easy for me to imagine that conventional news judgment has weaknesses regarding science, just as the court system does. So here I wondered if non-science editors higher up lacked confidence in science writers' judgments about what constitutes a strong case and what kinds of scientific claims are even amenable to a strong case.

There are cases of that. I would say this was not one of them.

To me it's also about the strength of the conviction of the sources, their credibility and exactly how specific a conclusion they draw. Often it's important when the White House lies or covers things up, and this is a very suspicious thing to lie about, so even if it can't be determined what this thing was, I would have thought it newsworthy just to determine the thing isn't either of the two different things the White House said it was.

Okrent's characterization is entirely accurate, and I think Lindorff is ranting. He's covered the same reporting trails that the Times reporters did so he's presented the facts that would have been in the story. Does he prove Bush cheated?

You'd know better than I. But I would have thought it hard to predict what would be the downstream effects of the Times treating an object beneath the bulge as incontrovertible as anthropogenic global warming and highlighting the contradiction with the White House line.

One more time: we didn't have the goods. If you think the evidence in the story was anywhere near the credibility of the evidence of global warming, you're delusional.

I thought you might say something like that. We get criticized for acting arrogant, and here your criticism is basically that we didn't act arrogant and should have. News judgment here should not be "We want to throw it out there to legitimize it and provoke a response." but the same as any other news outlet: Do we think this is a story that merits the space and play?

I think we're on the same page, and just reciting different paragraphs. Initially it sounded like you were replying "No big deal if the Times misses a story, we're a paper like any other," whereas my point was "If the other majors miss it you're the last line of defense from the abyss of mumbled heresay status!" I'm not suggesting the Times should print something either to legitimize or to provoke. I'm saying the Times has a well above average responsibility to resolve in its own collective mind whether an explosive claim of national importance is legitimate and to print that claim if it finds it so--especially when the collective mind perceives that the other major outlets have missed the boat. From the FAIR article it seemed the Times caught a glimpse (by way of the fervent testimony by gizmo experts that Salon didn't have and more suggestive image enhancements) but an editor called off the pursuit.

I should acknowledge though that it's not just the reporting of potentially hard facts I potentially would regret not having seen in the Times. I also regret that nobody mentioned the ramifications I consider most important. All I've read about is "cheating," as if this were just about a contest. I would have liked someone to mention the possibility that the people voted for Cyrano and ended up with a stranger in the White House. At the same time, I realize that if the first presidential debate were ventriloquism, it would be a short slide along the slippery slope of what goes on already with speech writers, cue cards, etc. So I feel like the politicians missed a teachable moment, because the people didn't see it.

Okrent's characterization is entirely accurate, and I think Lindorff is ranting. He's covered the same reporting trails that the Times reporters did so he's presented the facts that would have been in the story. Does he prove Bush cheated?

Doesn't have to. To my mind he only needs to prove the White House is lying about something suspicious...or rather that the Times had a serious lead on such proof but decided not to pursue it. But no, he didn't proved either, just made me extremely curious.

One more time: we didn't have the goods. If you think the evidence in the story was anywhere near the credibility of the evidence of global warming, you're delusional.

I wasn't talking about the strength of the evidence that the Times had already obtained, but what it would have obtained had the FAIR evidence been corroborated by other experts as fervent and unequivocal in their convictions as the FAIR story made its experts sound. I also wasn't talking about evidence for cheating, but evidence for an object, because the White House says there was no object, and as I said I think there would be a story in that. I'm simply entertaining the possibility of this strength of evidence, and if you know you're only day-dreaming then you're not delusional.

Here, tellingly, are two points that no one asserted on basis of the photo:
1. I can prove it's not a back brace or any other harmless object.
2. Here is a specific apparatus that would produce that pattern. (The caption on the FAIR page says specifically that the model shown does not appear to be one on Bush's back.)

And the American public has shown it's tolerant of certain lies. Clinton was caught in a flat-out lie, actually several, some even under oath, and people decided that the lies did not warrant the upheaval of throwing him out of office. People are even tolerant of more significant lies if they feel the false appearance is better than knowledge of the truth. Example: what are the chances that Bush Sr. was completely out of the loop on Iran-Contra?

In this case, if Bush were lying when he actually had a back brace would be a whoop-de-do. If Karl Rove was giving him instructions, it would be a big story if someone had intercepted the radio communications or something REALLY incontrovertible (memo, script, the transmitter). But for now, you can't point to any statement and say, "That's a lie and I can prove it!" Rather, you can say that the statements out of the White House were vague and somewhat contradictory.

Also, remember, Bush stunk it up at that debate, so there's not even the sense that Bush gained an unfair advantage from the alleged cheating.

Here, tellingly, are two points that no one asserted on basis of the photo:
1. I can prove it's not a back brace or any other harmless object.
2. Here is a specific apparatus that would produce that pattern. (The caption on the FAIR page says specifically that the model shown does not appear to be one on Bush's back.)

Right, but remember that what provoked my concern was that a lead that was considered promising to two science reporters was judged not worth pursuing by higher ups. Maybe I'd have sided with the editor. Depends on what the reporters found. If their gizmo expert said "I know all the devices so that thing beneath the bulge must be a custom job" then that's a dead end. If he'd said "it's not like the ones i sell but it reminds me of something this Bosnian i know was talking about" then that's not a dead end.

And the American public has shown it's tolerant of certain lies. Clinton was caught in a flat-out lie, actually several, some even under oath, and people decided that the lies did not warrant the upheaval of throwing him out of office. People are even tolerant of more significant lies if they feel the false appearance is better than knowledge of the truth. Example: what are the chances that Bush Sr. was completely out of the loop on Iran-Contra?

Well, I guess this is the nub. In this case I wanted the Times using it's own judgment off what's important, not it's jaded and cynical idea of what the electorate considers important. We have elections to decide what's important to the electorate, and my hope springs eternal that the electorate next time will care about the same things I care about and what I bet a lot of Times reporters care about too. I believe those instances of presidential misbehavior you cite are irreproducible experiments that have a little to do with the facts and a lot more to do with coverage. So I think it can make all the difference that a story doesn't appear at the right time and in the right form. The Times is a bit bigger than a butterfly in Borneo.

7 comments:

Thomas Nephew said...

Very interesting… is this real correspondence, or are you doing a kind of imaginary Q and A with an imaginary New York Times insider? That was a little confusing.

Anyway, I think the New York Times guy (or voice, as the case may be) is wrong to say "we didn't have the goods", because they didn't need to have ALL the goods to publish the story. People were claiming this was just a wrinkle in a suit; the image is persuasive that it wasn't just a wrinkle in a suit. They didn't have to also say what it actually was. As for Bush then hypothetically just re-denying it, so what? Like you, I think that it couldn't have been hard to come up with a 2nd outfit to evaluate Nelson's methods and verify he wasn't just pulling his enhanced image out of thin air; that, too, would have strengthened the story.


(PS: you appear to leave out the NYT guy's comments at one point. You reply to a "1. Forget the "newspaper of record" crap. .." comment (and a second comment) that I didn't see upstream of your reply.)

Thomas Nephew said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Thomas Nephew said...

sorry for the multiple comments, blogger said something like "timed out" and I reposted the comment. Feel free to delete one.

Murky Thoughts said...

Thanks for pointing out the omitted part. I just pasted it in. Yeah, it's real and not imagined. I'd just rather not name names.

Murky Thoughts said...

More Murky Thoughts on this, quoted from my comment here.

It's obvious the White House lied about the bulge, but there's a simple and innocent explanation among those that have been floated, which none of you conspiracy fans seem to want to consider. This explanation is that it was a bullet-proof vest and that the White House denies it for the very reason that I have read expressed cryptically in at least one news article, which is that the Secret Service does not discuss their precautions for safeguarding the president. It only takes a moment's thought to realize this makes perfect sense: The president would wear such a vest foremost to protect against premeditated attempts to assassinate the president with a gun. Were the fact of the vest to become common knowledge, many would-be gunners might be expected to include in their preparations the purchase of specially tipped bullets that penetrate Kevlar or other vests. I wouldn't be surprised, furthermore, if many otherwise reluctant would-be assassins would feel emboldened by the news of a vest, because the use of a vest implies the Secret Service believes a clean shot is possible. So if I were in Bob Keller's position as Times editor and could reasonably and quietly euthanize this bulge story, I believe I'd be sorely tempted to do so. With regard to "reasonably," despite the FAIR article slant, there are indeed journalists quite willing to argue that the story was only borderline newsworthy at best. So let's go at this bulge thing Okkam style:
Q: What besides clothing is the most obvious thing for a president to wear at a scheduled public appearance beneath his or her jacket?
A: A bullet-proof vest.
Q: What's most obvious reason for the White House to deny a vest?
A: Because to acknowledge a vest would be largely to defeat the very purpose of a vest, which is to prevent penetration by those bullets that the would be assassin chooses to acquire and brings with him or her.
Q: What's the most obvious reason that the Times would choose not to draw attention to this lie?
A: Because (a) the Times generally aspires to serve the public interest and sees the assassination of presidents as contrary to that interest and (b) there wasn't much of a story there.

Murky Thoughts said...

http://cannonfire.blogspot.com/2005/02/bulge-is-comin-back.html

is the "here" link above, which doesn't seem to work for me.

Murky Thoughts said...

http://pictures.auctionarms.com/4173184334/174b02a9cd64c97604dae457cde27b1a.jpg
is a link to an image of a vest with a bulge in about the right place.