Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting
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Okrent Charges Extra! With "Distortion"
February 11, 2005
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
N.B. Any opinions expressed here, unless otherwise attributed, are solely
* * *
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
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
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."
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