May 13, 2003

House of Mirrors

Oh Jayson Blair what havoc you have wrought! And there you smile on the page of the institution you disgraced, The New York Times.

In the picture of Blair on the site he looks like the sweetest, nicest guy you could ever meet. And yet there is a twinkle of capriciousness in those eyes. Even though the smiling protrait was obviously taken before the story surfaced, somehow the smile seems appropriate. As if he is getting a little chuckle out of the fact that his little jest could seriously rattle that Titanic of a New York Times. What a house of mirrors it creates.

This guy could be the hero in the Spielberg movie "Catch Me if you Can" with Leonardo DiCaprio, a great imposter.

Who can blame him? The smooth conman is a culture hero in America. He can sell the rights to his story, maybe even write his own screenplay. Maybe he'll become a director.

Who can put this guy down? He totally snowed the New York Times for nearly four years. The Times is really squirming. This really brings the rectal insect metaphor to life.

So the Times is the latest institution to be disgraced in this cataclysmic era. Surely it's a minor incident, only the behavior of one very strange reporter, not an institutional failure. But nevertheless it made the Times extremely uncomfortable.

Sunday's Times started the story on the front page and gave it four open -- that is, FULL -- pages inside. Few events in history have been given so much coverage in the Times. This was a New York Times riddled with angst. To get out there and confess to having published four years of lies from one reporter, that cuts to the bone.

The Times' contrition was so weighty as to qualify for a confession and explanation that was a virtual "War & Peace" on the subject. And one with a long, pained preamble.

"Every newspaper," the Times intones, "like every bank and every police department, trusts its employees to uphold central principles, and the inquiry found that Mr. Blair repeatedly violated the cardinal tenet of journalism, which is simply truth."

Well, in an ideal world, yes, the cardinal rule is simply truth. In the real world, the business environment and social structure the Times inhabits, it is not always possible to tell the "simple truth." Even if one can discern the "simple truth", not relative truth, there is a question whether a newspaper like the Times really cares to tell the truth on all occasions.

To argue the question whether the Times consistently lives up to its "cardinal rule which is simply truth" one would want to present more information than I am prepared to post tonight. But without evidence I will say that there are many things the Times does not tell or talk about it, and those things fall into patterns. Certain truths that would embarass certain powerful people will not ever be part of the "news that's fit to print."

Beneath the layer of facts or data, there are misconceptions built into the language itself. The Times will, for example, use the word "terrorist" and the reader is supposed to automatically assume it's an Arab, or some other third world ethnic group, or just a mass murderer like Timothy McVeigh. The paper, like other US media, stubbornly refuses to note that the Shock and Awe the US boasted about in Iraq was essentially the same kind of activity with the same intention as the September 11 attacks in New York City. The Times never refers to the Bush administration as "terrorists," but there is no logical reason for that distinction between the terrorism of September 11 and the terrorism of the Invasion of Iraq.

That's on the fundamental level of semantics and language, and one could comb any issue of the Times and point to innumerable instances of lies and biases that are built into the basic language that determines the world view of the paper. But there are also clear omissions of fact that seem once again to be a result of bias.

For example, the Times can't bring itself to report the fact that George W. Bush's grandfather Prescott Bush and his great grandfather George Herbert Walker were officers in a bank that funneled $50 million to Hitler's war effort and was closed down under the Trading With the Enemy Act.

Why does the Times absolutely refuse to mention such a significant fact? It's certainly not because of a dedication to simple truth.

Why has no one at the Times asked Bush why he has offered a dozen conflicting stories about the circumstances in which he heard about the 911 attacks?

Why doesn't the Times point out the glaring incongruency of Bush's spending a million tax dollars to create a photo op in which he can pose as a soldier when he was in fact a deserter and a dodger during the Vietnam era? Why does that huge contradiction never surface in the New York Times? (For a summary of Bush's military desertion, see For a summary of his whole military career, see Mother Jones)

The Times, like virtually all American media, never referred to the war in Vietnam as an American invasion, which it certainly was. It was always couched in noble-sounding euphemisms and blurred meanings, because admitting that the US invades small Third World countries would, as Allen Dulles told reporters when he refused to answer their questions, "only lead to more questions."

The New York Times still refers to the Warren Report as the gospel truth of what happened on November 22, 1963. Even though a committee of the House of Representatives was forced to conclude that there was a conspiracy in that killing, the Times still clings to the earlier story of the "single deranged assassin," which is clearly inconsistent with the facts that are now known. The list could go on and on.

The Times is clinging to the Flat Earth Theory of Nonexistence of Conspiracies. Its mournful tale of the single lone nut at the Times who "doesn't tell the truth" -- as if his crime stands apart from the institution itself and was not endemic to it -- is as glaring a contradiction as Bush's pretending to be a soldier.

Welcome to the House of Mirrors.

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