The Power To Mis-Inform (7/98)

The US press has finally admitted what many suspected: it’s lost its grip on reality and ethics. On the surface, the obvious example is CNN’s retraction last week of a story alleging US military use of nerve gas on defectors during the Vietnam War. This followed closely the Cincinnati Enquirer’s front page apology to Chiquita Brands for the use of stolen voice mail in a story questioning the company’s business practices,

And let’s not forget those complete fabrications. Patricia Smith, a 1998 Pulitzer Prize finalist, was recently forced to resign from the Boston Globe after making up people and quotations for four columns. Meanwhile, New Republic associate editor Stephen Glass was fired after confessing he’d "embellished” a story about computer hackers. Apparently, he’d already invented news in dozens of articles. Glass also used bogus quotes in a profile of Vernon Jordan published in George Magazine.

On July 3, Vermont’s most widely read daily, the Burlington Free Press, handled the CNN retraction with a front page Associated Press report. While certainly noteworthy, the correction would have been more candid had the paper mentioned its own page one publication of the original report a month before. But even after the correction, the truth remains hazy. After all, according to Floyd Abrams, the attorney hired to check the report’s accuracy, CNN’s mea culpa doesn’t "necessarily mean that the story isn’t true." It just means, "We simply do not have enough evidence."

Producer April Oliver stands by the story. "We have several deep off the record sources," she noted recently. "But, of course, the ‘deniability’ voices are very loud right now, and they are getting a lot of attention. Many of my fellow journalists over at the Pentagon are portraying me as a gullible female believing fattened up war stories from old men." In early July, she and the other producer involved, Jack Smith, were fired. "These shadow warriors don’t like us looking into their business and their dark spaces," Oliver said afterward, referring to the military’s special forces. "They’re doing their best to make sure that no one else does."

Similarly, the Enquirer’s apology doesn’t prove the charges against Chiquita are false. Despite his questionable newsgathering, reporter Michael Gallagher did present a strong case that the company used life-threatening pesticides on Latin American banana farms, urged the Honduran military to raze a village, and bribed Colombian officials. Although the newspaper made $10 million settlement with the corporation, a Security and Exchange Commission investigation continues, and the European Union may soon step in.

So, what does the current round of hand-wringing reveal? That just because something — even a retraction — gets into the papers or onto TV doesn’t make it completely true. Unfortunately, this leaves the public confused and cynical, caught between accepting questionable stories and rejecting information that they ought to be taking seriously.

News Pollution

More often than not, when mistakes are made, the media doesn’t apologize. Instead, it covers up with slippery qualifications. At the moment, the most extreme example is the epic mis-handling of President Clinton’s alleged affairs. I certainly don’t pretend to know the truth. But as Steven Brill establishes in a devastating media critique published in the premiere issue of Content, much of what major media have offered as fact is either unsubstantiated rumor or misinformation circulated by those with something to gain.

Almost everyone now assumes, for example, that Clinton admitted to having an affair with Gennifer Flowers, that tapes recorded by Linda Tripp include Monica Lewinsky’s revelation that Clinton asked her to lie, that Lewinsky kept a semen-stained dress, and that people saw Clinton and Lewinsky engaged in White House hanky- panky. Well, here are the facts, as established by Brill through interviews with the journalists and sources involved.

Clinton never actually admitted to having an affair with Flowers in his Paula Jones case deposition; all he acknowledged was a single sexual encounter. Bad enough, some might say. But the false leak about that admission has polluted most coverage of the Paula Jones case. The dress story? That was first passed to Internet columnist Matt Drudge by Tripp’s agent, Lucianne Goldberg, who had no first- hand knowledge and later admitted that she "might have added the part about it being saved." Did it even exist? Who knows. What’s clear, however, is that the wall-to-wall coverage since January started with a book deal.

Rather than proving Clinton asked Lewinsky to lie, tape excerpts that have been heard suggest the opposite. At one point, when Tripp pointedly asked about that, Lewinsky actually said no. As for being caught in the act, this story was originally distributed by the AP, based on a Dallas Morning News article that was pulled before publication. The genesis of that one rumor shows just how poorly the whole subject has been handled.

The AP quoted the Dallas paper, which (until it backed off) was planning to quote an anonymous source, who was incorrectly paraphrasing what he’d heard his wife say while on the phone with a friend, who had talked to someone, who claimed he’d seen Lewinsky and Clinton. That made AP’s report fifth-hand, even before the Morning News disavowed it. Yet, millions of people still believe it’s true.

Spin Control

At the other end of the spectrum are solid stories by hard-working journalists that end up distorted — or censored — by their bosses, sometimes in collusion with powerful corporations. A troubling example, which should worry anyone who consumes dairy products, is Fox TV’s handling of a series on Monsanto’s controversial bovine growth hormone (BGH). Two Florida reporters claim they were fired by Fox affiliate WTVT for "refusing to broadcast what we knew to be lies and distorted information about BGH." Legal in the US, but banned in Europe and elsewhere, BGH has found its way into much of the US milk supply, despite unresolved health concerns.

After Monsanto’s lawyer sent a letter to Roger Ailes, Fox Network president (and a former GOP heavy-hitter), reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson were ordered to make script changes that downplayed criticisms and presented Monsanto’s view without qualifications. When they threatened to go to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the station offered them $200,000 to shut up. When they said no to that, they ended up rewriting the story 73 times over the remaining months of their contracts. Six air dates were cancelled, and the reporters were fired last December.

This May, after hiring a new investigative reporter, WTVT finally did air a series on the subject. Wilson and Akre claim it does precisely what they resisted — tone down evidence of unethical practices by Monsanto and the dairy industry. What didn’t air, among other things, was information on Monsanto’s lawsuits to keep ecologically-conscious companies from labeling its milk, attempts by grocery chains to mislead customers, and Monsanto’s history of manufacturing government-approved products that later proved harmful, including Agent Orange. In their lawsuit, the original reporters claim that the station violated Florida’s whistle blower law by firing them after they threatened to report wrongdoing to federal authorities.

Misplacing the Blame

A story’s impact can be strongly influenced by its placement, or how any responsibility for misdeeds is phrased. If an enemy like Saddam Hussein is being called to account, the placement is normally prominent and the wording unequivocal. But when the culprit is an ally — at least for the moment — the story is often buried and the phrasing gets fuzzy, disconnecting who’s done what to whom. Like spin control and confusing rumor with fact, it’s a form of perception management.

Last June in the New York Times, two stories connected to the slaughter of an estimated 250,000 people by the Guatemalan army appeared on the same day. Yet, they were separated by 11 pages. On page one was a grisly account of Guatemalans excavating hundreds of mass graves. The other story, buried inside, was a dry admission of how Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Times publisher from 1935 to 1961, had helped the CIA to black out coverage of a covert operation there in 1954.

Remarkably, the front page story somehow managed to avoid mentioning the CIA, despite its role in putting the army in power back in ’54. President Reagan’s renewed support for the Guatemalan army in the 1980s — just as counter-insurgency terror was devastating rural Indian communities and creating more mass graves — was also omitted. The page 11 story, on the other hand, left out the butchery that followed the coup Sulzberger helped cover up.

There was also no condemnation of Sulzberger’s journalistic violations, a far cry from the Times’ strong criticism of the San Jose Mercury News for its stories on cocaine trafficking by CIA-backed Nicaragua contra rebels. When Mercury News editor Jerry Ceppos finally distanced himself from that series, as you might guess, the Times put it on page one.

Convenient Targets

Having a designated villain apparently means never having to say you’re sorry. A few months ago, for example, parroting the State Department line, the national press screamed that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction in 83 palaces. No proof was required; it just seemed self-evident. But when Iraq agreed to inspections, the number was quickly revised down to eight. Still later, seven of those sites were redefined as guest residences. No trace of weapons or evidence of programs was found. Was there a clarification? Hardly.

The latest charge is the alleged presence of VX gas traces on a Scud missile fragment discovered at a destroyed Iraqi site. The source: a US Army lab, whose findings were somehow leaked to the Washington Post. Coming shortly after statements that progress was being made, the timing was extremely convenient. UN chief weapons inspector Richard Butler, who said he regretted the disclosure, agreed that it hasn’t yet been corroborated. A French UN official was more blunt. "I’m suspicious," he said. "This smells of manipulation." Even if this latest scare fades away, don’t expect a correction.

Enemies rarely receive either apologies or sympathy from the media. Take a June 28 Dateline report by John Hockenberry on the effects of Iraq sanctions. Dismissing statistics about the fivefold increase in levels of child mortality, Hockenberry preferred to express surprise that the situation wasn’t worse. Great news. Problems like the lack of medicine, sanitation devices, and food failed to impress. The point, after all, was to debunk evidence about the devastating effects of the seven-year embargo. No need to worry, folks. And after all, Saddam’s to blame.

Hidden Agendas

The best way to deal with news that doesn’t fit, of course, is to make believe it doesn’t exist. As a result, potential US links to recent terrorist attacks on Cuba have been largely ignored. That kind of thing doesn’t happen anyone, does it? Well, the evidence, including a dozen bombings last year at Cuban hotels and restaurants — in hopes of scaring away tourists — plus an assassination attempt on Castro himself, suggests otherwise. Cuban cops eventually traced the conspiracy to a CIA-trained Cuban exile, Luis Posada Carriles, with financing from Miami and New Jersey. A US investigation is reportedly underway. But unless Castro drops dead, don’t hold your breath until that makes the evening news.

Reporters generally don’t like such conspiracy stories. Even less so when they raise questions about media coverage. But what is a conspiracy? In the dictionary, it’s an agreement by two or more people to do something evil or unlawful. Using that definition, Fox TV and Monsanto conspired to kill that Florida dairy story. Linda Tripp and company conspired to get something –anything — on the Prez. In fact, there are enough conspiracies out there to keep the media busy until well into the next millennium.

For most reporters, though, the words "conspiracy" and "wackos" go together nicely, an easy way to dispose of anything they choose not to pursue. Recently on 60 Minutes, in a rebroadcast of a 1997 story, Leslie Stahl equated the two in a piece on rumors circulating over the Internet. The implication was that more control is need, lest cyberspace weirdos muddle reality with their groundless theories. Perception management should be left to the professionals, right?

But what if the professional has a hidden agenda? After all, Stahl did attend the 1997 meeting of a shadowy group known as the Bilderbergers. For the past 44 years, its annual secret gatherings — including a 1971 installment in Vermont at the Rockefeller estate — have included leading CEOs, politicians, and journalists from Western Europe and the US. For decades, Bilderberg meetings have helped strengthen the Atlantic alliance, developing a political- business consensus beyond the power of nation-states.

If anyone knows what they’re up to these days, it’s Leslie. But for some reason, the group isn’t news. Now, that’s perception management.

Maverick Chronicles appears weekly in the Vermont Times,
Greg Guma is the editor of Toward Freedom.