The Battle of the (Bush) Bulge: Why Did the ‘NYT’ Kill Its Story?

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By: Brian Orloff

“It’s just as important a story after the election, and they’ve dropped it,” says freelance writer David Lindorff, referring to the alleged bulge under President Bush?s suit jacket during the first presidential debate late fall. Lindorff?s take on how, and why, The New York Times killed a story on the controversy just before the November election gained wide attention this week after it was published in Extra!, a magazine produced by the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.

Lindorff first wrote on evidence supporting the bulge-is-real theory last fall for Salon.com.

His Extra! story, “The Emperor’s New Hump,” partly based on e-mails from a Times reporter, revealed that reporters at the newspaper extensively reported a story — only to see editors kill it in the week before the election — raising questions about a subject that had been treated as something of a joke by many in the media and dismissed out of hand by the White House.

The Times? story got as far as it did mainly because a respected NASA scientist had produced enhanced photographic evidence that the president was wearing something — a bulletproof vest, electronic device, or back brace, no one could say.

The fact that the story was killed is not news. In a December 19 note on his Web page, the paper’s public editor, Daniel Okrent, quoted Times Executive Editor Bill Keller saying, “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.”

But that Web note also revealed that science reporter Andrew Revkin, who contributed the bulk of the reporting, had told Okrent that the scientist?s assertions ?did rise above the level of garden-variety speculation, mainly because of who he is. … He essentially put his hard-won reputation utterly on the line.”

In Lindorff?s view, the Times got cold feet after it published a story about the ammunition dumps in Iraq allegedly overlooked by invading U.S. forces and in response was ?getting hammered from the right for having done an October surprise on Bush.?

But, in an interview with E&P, Lindorff noted the difference between the two stories, with the ammo dump involving ?incompetence of subordinates to the president and the other one is actually attacking the president’s personal character, which is harder for a real mainstream paper like the Times to do.

“This story was saying that he probably cheated, and it was saying that he definitely lied, because that picture has something under his jacket, and he was saying it was an ill-fitting suit,” Lindorff said. “Calling the president a liar, the Times doesn’t do that recently.”

E&P attempted to reach Okrent for comment this week, but his office said he would be out of town until late today.

According to Lindorff’s timetable, the Times postponed the Bulgegate story from the day it was initially slotted, the Tuesday before the election, until Thursday, five days before the election, when it was more likely to be deemed too late. “Five days before an election is enough time for a seasoned political machine to respond,? he said. s

In his Extra! story, Lindorff traced the postponement by documenting, and quoting from, a series of e-mails between Robert Nelson, the NASA scientist, and Times reporter John Schwartz. For example, in his first e-mail to Nelson, Lindorff quoted Schwartz as writing, “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.”

Now Lindorff suggests further revelations in this case. ?It’s obviously not the final word,” Lindorff said of Okrent’s column. “It’s not conclusive what the thing is, but it sure as hell is conclusive that the president lied.

“This administration has really cowed the media into really being afraid to call it for what it is,” he said. “They did it with Nixon. It got to the point where they recognized that Nixon was a crook. But they haven’t done that here because we’re not dealing with criminality. We’re dealing with just deceit. … But they can’t bring themselves to say that about the president. … They’re just too polite.”

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