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
Extra! January/February 2005
In the weeks leading up to the November 2 election, the New York Times was abuzz with excitement. Besides the election itself, the paper’s reporters were hard at work on two hot investigative projects, each of which could have a major impact on the outcome of the tight presidential race.
One week before Election Day, the Times (10/25/04) ran a hard-hitting and controversial exposé of the Al-Qaqaa ammunition dump—identified by U.N. inspectors before the war as containing 400 tons of special high-density explosives useful for aircraft bombings and as triggers for nuclear devices, but left unguarded and available to insurgents by U.S. forces after the invasion.
On Thursday, just three days after that first exposé, the paper was set to run a second, perhaps more explosive piece, exposing how George W. Bush had worn an electronic cueing device in his ear and probably cheated during the presidential debates.
It's clear even from unenhanced photos that George W. Bush has been wearing some kind of object under his clothing, both during the debates and at other public appearances. The enhancements done by NASA scientist Robert Nelson show a rectangular object with a long "tail"; in some shots a wire leading over Bush's shoulder is visible. This configuration closely resembles a PTT (Push To Talk) receiver with an induction earpiece, a device used by some actors, newscasters and politicians to allow for inaudible voice communication in a public setting. The particular model pictured here (which does not appear to be the exact type Bush wore) was manufactured by Resistance Technology, Inc. of Arden Hills , Minn.
The so-called Bulgegate story had been getting tremendous attention on the Internet. Stories about it had also run in many mainstream papers, including the New York Times (10/9/04, 10/18/04) and Washington Post (10/9/04), but most of these had been light-hearted. Indeed, the issue had even made it into the comedy circuit, including the monologues of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart and a set of strips by cartoonist Garry Trudeau.
That the story hadn’t gotten more serious treatment in the mainstream press was largely thanks to a well-organized media effort by the Bush White House and the Bush/Cheney campaign to label those who attempted to investigate the bulge as "conspiracy buffs" (Washington Post, 10/9/04). In an era of pinched budgets and an equally pinched notion of the role of the Fourth Estate, the fact that the Kerry camp was offering no comment on the matter—perhaps for fear of earning a "conspiracy buff" label for the candidate himself—may also have made reporters skittish. Jeffrey Klein, a founding editor of Mother Jones magazine, told Mother Jones (online edition, 10/30/04) he had called a number of contacts at leading news organizations across the country, and was told that unless the Kerry campaign raised the issue, they couldn’t pursue it.
"Totally off base"
The Times’ effort to get to the bottom of the matter through a serious investigation seemed to be a striking exception. That investigation, however, despite extensive reporting over several weeks by three Times reporters, never ran. Now, like the mythic weapons of mass destruction that were the raison d’etre for the Iraq War, the Times is thus far claiming that the Bush Bulgegate story never existed in the first place.
Referring to a FAIR press release (11/5/04) about the spiked story, Village Voice press critic Jarrett Murphy wrote (11/16/04), "A Times reporter alleged to have worked on such a piece says FAIR was totally off base: The paper never pursued the story."
Murphy told Extra! that his source at the nation’s self-proclaimed paper of record—whom he would not identify—told him the information about the bulge seen under Bush’s jacket during the debates, provided by a senior astronomer and photo imaging specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, had been tossed onto the "nutpile," and was never researched further.
In fact, several sources, including a journalist at the Times, have told Extra! that the paper put a good deal of effort into this important story about presidential competence and integrity; they claim that a story was written, edited and scheduled to run on several different days, before senior editors finally axed it at the last minute on Wednesday evening, October 27. A Times journalist, who said that Times staffers were "pretty upset" about the killing of the story, claims the senior editors felt Thursday was "too close" to the election to run such a piece. Emails from the Times to the NASA scientist corroborate these sources’ accounts.
Battle of the bulge
The Bulgegate story originated when a number of alert viewers of the first presidential debate noticed a peculiar rectangular bulge on the back of Bush’s jacket. That they got to see that portion of his anatomy at all was an accident; the Bush campaign had specifically, and inexplicably, demanded that the Presidential Debate Commission bar pool TV cameras from taking rear shots of the candidates during any debates. Fox TV, the first pool camera for debate one, ignored the rule and put two cameras behind the candidates to provide establishing shots.
Photos depicting the bulge and speculating on just what it might be (a medical device, a radio receiver?) began circulating widely around the Internet, and several special blog sites were established to discuss them. The suspicion that Bush had been getting cues or answers in his ear was bolstered by his strange behavior in that first debate, which included several uncomfortably long pauses before and during his answers. On one occasion, he burst out angrily with "Now let me finish!" at a time when nobody was interrupting him and his warning light was not flashing. Images of visibly bulging backs from earlier Bush appearances began circulating, along with reports of prior incidents that suggested Bush might have been receiving hidden cues (London Guardian, 10/8/04).
Finally, on October 8, this reporter ran an investigative report about the bulge in the online magazine Salon, following up with a second report (10/13/04)—an interview with an executive of a firm that makes wireless cueing devices that link to hidden earpieces—that suggested that Bush was likely to have been improperly receiving secret help during the debates.
At that point, Dr. Robert M. Nelson, a 30-year Jet Propulsion Laboratory veteran who works on photo imaging for NASA’s various space probes and currently is part of a photo enhancement team for the Cassini Saturn space probe, entered the picture. Nelson recounts that after seeing the Salon story on the bulge, professional curiosity prompted him to apply his skills at photo enhancement to a digital image he took from a videotape of the first debate. He says that when he saw the results of his efforts, which clearly revealed a significant T-shaped object in the middle of Bush’s back and a wire running up and over his shoulder, he realized it was an important story.
After first offering it unsuccessfully to his local paper, the Pasadena Star-News, and then, with equal lack of success, to the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh , where he had gone to college, he offered it to the Los Angeles Times. (In all his media contacts, Nelson says, he offered the use of his enhanced photos free of charge.) "About three weeks before the election, I gave the photos to the L.A. Times’ Eric Slater, who shopped them around the paper," recalls Nelson. "After four days, in which they never got back to me, I went to the New York Times."
The Times was at first very interested, Nelson reports. There was, after all, clearly good reason to investigate the issue. The White House and Bush/ Cheney campaign had initially mocked the bulge story when it had run in Salon, first attributing it to "doctored" photos circulating on the Internet (New York Times, 10/9/04), and later claiming that the bulge, so noticeable in video images, was the result of a "badly tailored suit" (New York Times, 10/18/04). Bush himself contradicted this White House and campaign line when he told ABC’s Charles Gibson (Good Morning America , 10/26/04) that the bulge was the result of his wearing a "poorly tailored shirt" to the debate.
Now Nelson’s photos—the result of his applying the same enhancement techniques to the debate pictures that he uses to clarify photo images from space probes—rendered all these official if mutually contradictory explanations obviously false. (A November 4, 2004 report in the Washington paper The Hill, citing an unidentified source in the Secret Service, claimed that the bulge was caused by a bulletproof vest worn by Bush during the debates, though this had been specifically denied by the White House and by Bush himself—New York Times, 10/9/04. In any event, no known vests have rear protuberances resembling the image discovered by Nelson.)
Times science writer William Broad, as well as reporters Andrew Revkin and John Schwartz, got to work on the story, according to Nelson, and produced a story that he says they assured him was scheduled to run the week of October 25. "It got pushed back because of the explosives story," he says, first to Wednesday, and then to Thursday, October 28. That would still have been five days ahead of Election Day.
An indication of the seriousness with which the story was being pursued is provided by an email Schwartz sent to Nelson on October 26—one of a string of back-and-forth emails between Schwartz and Nelson. It read:
Hey there, Dr. Nelson—this story is shaping up very nicely, but my_editors have asked me to hold off for one day while they push through a few other stories that are ahead of us in line. I might be calling you again for more information, but I hope that you’ll hold tight and not tell anyone else about this until we get a chance to get our story out there.
Please call me with any concerns that you might have about this, and thanks again for letting us tell your story.
But on October 28, the article was not in the paper. After learning from the reporters working on the story that their article had been killed the night before by senior editors, Nelson eventually sent his photographic evidence of presidential cheating to Salon magazine, which ran the photos as the magazine’s lead item on October 29. That same day, Nelson received the following email from the Times’ Schwartz:
Congratulations on getting the story into Salon. It’s already all over the Web in every blog I’ve seen this morning. I’m sorry to have been a source of disappointment and frustration to you, but I’m very happy to see your story getting out there.
Not exactly the kind of message you’d expect a reporter to send to a "nut."
"The bar is raised higher"
In fact, Schwartz, Revkin and Broad, using Nelson’s photographic evidence as their starting point, had made a major effort to put together the story of presidential debate misconduct and deception. Among those called in the course of their reporting, in addition to Nelson, who says he received numerous calls and emails from the team, were Cornell physicist Kurt Gottfried, who was asked to vouch for Nelson’s professional credentials; Bush/Cheney campaign chair Ken Mehlman (information about this call was provided by a journalist at the Times); and Jim Atkinson, an owner of a spyware and debugging company in Gloucester, Mass., called Granite Island Group.
"The Times reporters called me a number of times on this story," confirms Atkinson. "I was able to identify the object Nelson highlighted definitively as a magnetic cueing device that uses a wire yoke around the neck to communicate with a hidden earpiece—the kind of thing that is used routinely now by music performers, actors, reporters—and by politicians."
He adds, "The Times reporters called me repeatedly. They were absolutely going after this story aggressively, though at one point they told me they were concerned that their editors were going to kill it."
Efforts to learn more about the history and fate of this story at the New York Times met for weeks with official silence. Several inquiries were made by phone and email to Times public editor Daniel Okrent over a period of three weeks, eliciting one response—an email from his assistant asking for the names of Extra!’s sources at the Times. He was not provided with the sources, but was given the names of the three reporters who worked on the piece, which had been disclosed by Dr. Nelson. (At deadline time, Okrent did finally call, and promised to seek the answer to the story’s fate. A week later, at press time, he had yet to do so.)
One clue as to what happened at the Times is provided by a final email message sent by Times reporter Schwartz to Nelson, who had written to Schwartz to alert him that he had gone on to analyze photos of Bush’s back in the subsequent two debates. Schwartz wrote:
Subject: Re: reanalysis of debate images more convincing than before
Dear Dr. Nelson,
Thanks for sticking with me on this. I don’t know what might convince them—and the bar is raised higher the closer we are to the election, because they don’t want to seem to be springing something at the last moment—but I will bring this up with my bosses.
"Voters have a right to know"
Ironically, however, on November 1, the New York Times ran a story by reporters Jacques Steinberg and David Carr, titled "Media Timing and the October Surprise." The Times had been taking considerable heat from conservatives and from the Bush campaign for running the Al-Qaqaa story, an investigative piece critical of Iraq War leadership—and thus damaging to Bush’s election campaign—so close to Election Day.
While the thrust of this article was a justification for the Times’ decision to run the controversial missing-explosives story a week ahead of the election, executive editor Bill Keller added a comment about the seemingly hypothetical issue of running a damaging story about a candidate as close as two days ahead of the voting:
I can’t say categorically you should not publish an article damaging to a candidate in the last days before an election. . . . If you learned a day or two before the election that a candidate had lied about some essential qualification for the job—his health or criminal record—and there’s no real doubt and you’ve given the candidate a chance to respond and the response doesn’t cast doubt on the story, do you publish it? Yes. Voters certainly have a right to know that.
Oddly, though, despite Keller’s having taken such a position, the Times apparently chose not to run the Nelson pictures story on the grounds of proximity to Election Day. Even more oddly, despite the fact that the Times had thoroughly researched and reported Nelson’s story before deciding not to run it—even after the story had run in both Salon and Mother Jones—the Times still ducked (and continues to duck) the whole bulge story itself, ignoring an important issue that it knew to be factually substantiated.
No mention of the Bush bulge was made in either the Times or the Washington Post between October 29 and Election Day—aside from a one-line mention in a New York Times Magazine essay by Matt Bai (10/31/04) that used the Bulgegate story as an example of the paranoia of "political conspiracists":
A rumor that the president somehow cheated in the televised debates—was that a wire under his jacket? was he listening to Karl Rove on a microscopic earpiece?—flies across the Internet and takes hold in dark corners of the public imagination.
The only subsequent reference to the bulge was a light post-election piece by Times Washington reporter Elizabeth Bumiller (11/8/04), who cited the anonymously sourced Hill story saying the bulge was body armor (an odd decision by the Times, which officially frowns on unidentified sources even for its own pieces). She reported that the White House tailor was miffed at having earlier been blamed for the bulge by the White House.
“A lot of hoops”
While the New York Times seems to have been the only newspaper to write an investigative story on the Bush bulge and then kill it, it was not the only paper to duck the story about the bulge and its dramatic confirmation and delineation by Nelson. In addition to the L. A. Times and the two local papers that showed no interest, Nelson says that the same day he learned that his story had been killed at the Times, October 28, he received a phone call from Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, famous for his investigative reports on Watergate. "Woodward said he’d heard the Times had killed the story and asked me if I could send the photos to him," says Nelson.
The JPL scientist did so immediately, via email, noting that he had also been in touch with Salon magazine. He says Woodward then sent his photographs over to a photo analyst at the paper to check them for authenticity, which Nelson says was confirmed.
A day later, realizing time was getting short, Nelson called Woodward back. Recalls Nelson: "He told me, 'Look, I’m going to have to go through a lot of hoops to get this story published. You’re already talking to Salon. Why don’t you work with them?'" (Several emails to Woodward asking him about Nelson's account have gone unanswered.)
At that point Nelson, despairing of getting the pictures in a major publication, went with the online magazine Salon. This reporter subsequently asked Nelson to do a similar photo analysis of digital images of Bush’s back taken from the tapes of the second and third presidential debates. The resulting photos, which also clearly show the cueing device and magnetic loop harness under his jacket on both occasions, were posted, together with Nelson’s images from the first debate, on the news website of Mother Jones magazine (10/30/04).
What should affect elections?
Ben Bagdikian, retired dean of U.C. Berkeley's journalism school, held Woodward's current position at the Washington Post during the time of the Pentagon Papers. Informed of the fate of the bulge story and Nelson's photos at the three newspapers, he said:
I cannot imagine a paper I worked for turning down a story like this before an election. This was credible photographic evidence not about breaking the rules, but of a total lack of integrity on the part of the president, evidence that he'd cheated in the debate, and also of a lack of confidence in his ability on the part of his campaign. I'm shocked to hear top management decided not to run such a story.
Could the last-minute decision by the New York Times not to run the Nelson photos story, or the decision by the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times not even to pursue it, have affected the outcome of the recent presidential race? There is no question that if such a story had run in any one of those major venues, instead of just in two online publications, Bulgegate would have been a major issue in the waning days of the campaign.
Given that exit polls show many who voted for Bush around the country listed "moral values" as a big factor in their decision, it seems reasonable to assume that at least some would have changed their minds had evidence been presented in the nation’s biggest and most influential newspapers that Bush had been dishonest.
"Cheating on a debate should affect an election," says Bagdikian. "The decision not to let people know this story could affect the history of the United States ."
Investigative journalist Dave Lindorff is a regular columnist for CounterPunch. His latest book is This Can’t Be Happening: Resisting the Disintegration of American Democracy (Common Courage Press). His writings can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
Spiking the Bush Bulge Story:
As Extra! went to press, New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent posted a message on his website (12/21/04) confirming that his paper had, in fact, killed a story about the device under George W. Bush’s suit. Here is the text of Okrent’s message:
President Bush and the Jacket Bulge
Online discussion of the famous bulge on President Bush’s back at the first presidential debate hasn’t stopped. One reporter (Dave Lindorff of Salon.com) asserted that the Times had a story in the works about a NASA scientist who had done a careful study of the graphic evidence, but it was spiked by the paper’s top editors sometime during the week before the election. Many readers have asked me for an explanation.
I checked into Lindorff’s assertion, and he’s right. The story’s life at the Times began with a tip from the NASA scientist, Robert Nelson, to reporter Bill Broad. Soon his colleagues on the science desk, John Schwartz and Andrew Revkin, took on the bulk of the reporting. Science editor Laura Chang presented the story at the daily news meeting but, like many other stories, it did not make the cut. According to executive editor Bill Keller, "In the end, nobody, including the scientist who brought it up, could take the story beyond speculation. In the crush of election-finale stories, it died a quiet, unlamented death."
Revkin, for one, wished it had run. Here’s what he told me in an e-mail message:
I can appreciate the broader factors weighing on the paper’s top editors, particularly that close to the election. But personally, I think that Nelson’s assertions did rise above the level of garden-variety speculation, mainly because of who he is. Here was a veteran government scientist, whose decades-long career revolves around interpreting imagery like features of Mars, who decided to say very publicly that, without reservation, he was convinced there was something under a president’s jacket when the White House said there was nothing. He essentially put his hard-won reputation utterly on the line (not to mention his job) in doing so and certainly with little prospect that he might gain something as a result—except, as he put it, his preserved integrity.
Revkin also told me that before Nelson called Broad, he had approached other media outlets as well. None—until Salon—published anything on Nelson’s analysis. "I’d certainly choose [Nelson’s] opinion over that of a tailor," Revkin concluded, referring to news reports that cited the man who makes the president’s suits. "Hard to believe that so many in the media chose the tailor, even in coverage after the election."