October 14, 2004,
Have you ever heard of Dave Lindorff?
Probably not. But Lindorff, a writer who occasionally covers politics, recently pulled a good one on the Washington Post, New York Times, and a number of other news outlets.
In an article, "Bush's Mystery Bulge," published in the left-wing online journal Salon, Lindorff speculated that President Bush might have been "literally channeling Karl Rove" in the first presidential debate that is, wearing an invisible earpiece attached to a radio receiver through which Rove could feed him answers to vexing questions.
Lindorff's evidence was a freeze-frame from the debate which he said showed "a large solid object" beneath Bush's suit coat. "Was the bulge under his well-tailored jacket a hidden receiver, picking up transmissions from someone offstage?" Lindorff asked. He didn't know. But he said, "Bloggers are burning up their keyboard with speculation."
No one from the White House or the Bush campaign would talk to Lindorff. Neither would the Kerry campaign or the Democratic National Committee. So Lindorff concluded, "As to whether we really do have a Milli Vanilli president, the answer at this point has to be, God only knows."
On the basis of that good old shoe-leather reporting, the Washington Post ran a story the next day discussing "widespread cyber-speculation that [Bush] was wired to receive help with his answers."
When the Post asked the Bush camp for comment, the president's aides tried to laugh it off. When the paper insisted on a serious answer, several officials "flatly denied" that there was anything unusual about the wrinkle in the president's coat.
The Post had no evidence, beyond the Internet speculation. But that speculation, along with Lindorff's Salon article based entirely on the same speculation, was apparently enough to merit publication.
The same for the Times, which based its story on "rumors racing across the Internet." The paper of record added that, "The prime suspect was Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's powerful political adviser."
In both stories, it appears the Post and the Times placed particular faith in the judgment of Dave Lindorff. And who wouldn't? Just look at some of the things he's written.
A pioneer in comparing George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler, Lindorff wrote last year, on the website Counterpunch.org, that, "It's going a bit far to compare the Bush of 2003 to the Hitler of 1933. Bush simply is not the orator that Hitler was. But comparisons of the Bush administration's fear mongering tactics to those practiced so successfully and with such terrible results by Hitler and Goebbels on the German people and their Weimar Republic are not at all out of line."
A few months later, Lindorff moderated his position just a touch, writing, "George Bush is not Hitler. Yet." But Lindorff added, "It's worth pointing out too that Hitler was not the monster of 1939 when he took power in 1933."
Why would the Post and the Times rely on such a source for the "mystery bulge" story? You'll have to ask them. And then ask a few more questions.
Like, why did the Post run a four-column banner headline which had significant anti-Bush resonance "U.S. 'Almost All Wrong' on Weapons" that was itself dead wrong? And then run a brief correction which did not even bother to explain the mistake, because the paper's ombudsman said he didn't have the "room" to do so?
And why did the Times run a "fact-check" story on the Cheney-Edwards debate that got its own facts wrong?
The paper examined Edwards's assertion that millionaires who get rich from dividends pay "a lower tax rate then the men and women who are receiving paychecks for serving on the ground in Iraq." True, said the Times. Except the next day, the paper had to say, Oops, sorry enlisted troops in Iraq pay no federal income taxes at all.
And why, when the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran an ad accusing Kerry of having "secretly met with the enemy" at the Paris peace talks, did the Times publish stories not one, not two, but three stories saying the Swifties were wrong, that in fact Kerry himself said he met with "both sides" in Paris?
As it turned out, the Swifties were right, and the Times ran a correction noting that Kerry had said he met with the two Communist delegations in Paris not "both sides."
Put them all together, and you have a lot of mistakes, all going in the same direction and that's not counting ABC News' directive to question Bush's "distortions" more aggressively than Kerry's.
Before the first presidential debate, Time magazine's Matthew Cooper told the Post's Howard Kurtz that the press corps was "aching" to write the story of a Kerry comeback. Perhaps some of their recent mistakes are the result of the same longing.
It's a good thing the ombudsmen assure us there's no bias involved. Otherwise, it might appear suspicious.
Byron York is also a columnist for The Hill, where a version of this first appeared.