3 September 1999
Our current howler: Still Waco after all these years
Synopsis: The crackpots and crazies arent all in militias. Theyre on cable, overstating on Waco.
Commentary by Jim Lehrer, Roberto Suro
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, PBS, 9/2/99
Reno Admits Credibility Hurt In Waco Case
Stephen Labaton, The New York Times, 8/27/99
Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 9/2/99
Commentary by Andrew Neapolitino, Alan Colmes, Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ)
Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Channel, 9/2/99
Commentary by Len Cannon
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 9/2/99
Occasionally there were moments of sanity. On the NewsHour,
Jim Lehrer and the Washington Post's Roberto Suro discussed the
newly-released tape from Waco:
LEHRER: Is there any evidence that somebody was intentionally
withholding this, or was it an accident, or does anybody really
SURO: Well, that's very much what this independent inquiry
is going to try to determine, I suppose.
And of course, it is entirely possible that someone
deliberately withheld this tape, although it doesn't seem to contradict
the larger known facts of the Waco disaster. But it's also possible
that the FBI's failure to report the use of two incendiary devices
was some sort of oversight or mistake. Recently, an inventory
of materials used on the day of the raid revealed, for the first
time, that such devices were used. Why hadn't the inventory come
to light sooner? Stephen Labaton, in the New York Times:
LABATON: An F.B.I. official said the inventory was an internal
document prepared shortly after the raid, and officials said today
that it might not have surfaced earlier because investigators
did not attach significance to an incident that happened hours
before the fire at a different corner of the compound.
Is it possible that the devices' use was overlooked because
their use was unrelated to the actual disaster? Many things are
currently possible. The investigation may determine what is true.
But on America's increasingly crackpot cable channels, time
rarely waits for the facts. All over cable news channels last
night, the standard collection of incompetents and flunkies were
rushing to state unknown facts. The basic rules of engagement
are known: make assertions of fact you can't know to be trueand
always ratchet up the excitement.
What was known about these events? What was known
was that two incendiary devices were shot at a concrete bunker,
which the devices had failed to penetrate. The devices, thus,
had lay in a field, distant from the terrible fire. But on came
Chris Matthews with fire in his heart, at the start of his inventive
show Hardball, stirring the masses in cable land with his
opening statement last night:
MATTHEWS: Let's find out what the hell is happening with the
FBI and the attorney general and Waco.
Wow! Chris was cursing! This was big! The excited talker
rattled on, barking his standard brisk brio:
MATTHEWS: Julian Epstein:...Janet Reno, Bill Clinton, the FBI,
Louis Freeh, the Waco people, incendiary bombs being cast into
that Waco compound now, we have audiotape recordings of this now...What's
going on here?
What was "going on here" was the standard practice
in which cable hosts gimmick up Great Big News. The excited host
named at least one name that had little to do with the recent
disclosure, and he now was picturing incendiary "bombs"
making their way "into the compound" (news reporting
said the devices had lain in a puddle a substantial distance away).
But then, all over the cable dial, skillful hosts were creating
excitement. Everything had to be spun two steps up. The silliest
moment belonged to Judge Andrew Neapolitino, subbing as co-host
on Hannity & Colmes:
NEAPOLITINO: Someone somewhere in the FBI must have lied to
a superior, and those lies about the existence of this incriminating
evidence made their way to the attorney general. She unwittingly
lied to the president, she unwittingly lied to the nation. Isn't
someone culpable for obstruction of justice here?
But of course, if you "unwittingly" lie, then you
aren't lying at all, as English speakers know when they aren't
hosting cable. But to say Reno "lied" made the tale
more exciting. The excited judge said it again:
NEAPOLITINO: Congressman [John] Shadegg, two of your colleagues,
maybe more, have called for Janet Reno's resignation. Should her
naiveté, should her ignorance of what truly happened, should
her unwilling, or unwitting, I should say, lie to the American
people and to the president be a basis for her resignation?
Shadegg simply had to say yes. After all, if Reno was willing
to lie "unwittingly," think what she might do on purpose!
But the most significant howler was the judge's first statementhis
statement that "someone must have lied." The judge does
not know this to be true. Listen to Shadegg at another point (Shadegg,
an Arizona Republican, had served on the House committee that
examined Waco in 1995):
ALAN COLMES: Congressman, is it possible that nothing was concealed
by the FBI, that they thought that these two devices going off
six hours before and yards away from the compound did not really
impact the investigation and that there was no attempt to cover
anything up, but that this was not in their view germane to the
REP. SHADEGG: I guess I want to be careful about thatBut the
technical answer to your question may be right. We have to look
back at the precise questions they were asked.
But as the congressman continued his answer, he created a conundrum
all his own:
REP. SHADEGG (continuing): My belief is that they were asked
if any incendiary devices were used at all that day. And I believe
that question was put to them in the congressional hearings in
which I participated. If that's true, then it's not possible
that they didn't misrepresent the facts to Congress.
But Colmes had been asking if the FBI reps had lied.
What if the reps who appeared before Congress didn't know
these devices were used? What if FBI personnel who knew about
the devices' use weren't asked about it during the internal probes?
What if the guys in the field didn't think the devices
were relevant, since they were unrelated to the actual fire? All
over sadly misnamed "news" channels, excited talkers
swore someone had lied. Somehow, Lehrer and Suro knew this hadn't
been shown. But in today's embarrassing media culture, cable "news"
deals excitement, not facts.
Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing what may have
occurred in this probe. We don't know what explains the official
misstatements about the use of the pyrotechnic devices.
But we do know there's no indication that their use was important,
and there's no demonstration (yet) that anyone lied. But what
has been proven this week is more troublingand it's been
proven all over the dial. Our press culture is a culture of spin
and excitement, in which talkers tell viewers they've been badly
misused. The viewers are being misused, all right. But the misuse
of the viewers isn't done under coverit's conducted each night,
by excited talkers, who are willing to work in plain sight.
Ratcheting up the excitement: Len Cannon, subbing for
Brian Williams, in his introductory statement on The News:
CANNON: New startling revelations and a never before seen FBI
video have raised disturbing questions about the day the Branch
Davidian compound in Waco went up in flames.
They key words here are "startling" and "disturbing."
But what exactly were the "startling" revelations? It
was "revealed" that two tear gas canisters bounced off
a bunker and lay all day long in a field. And we'd suggest this
one small thing to Cannon: we'd suggest he postpone being "disturbed"
by his questions, until he has actually answered them.
That isn't the way that it's done now on cable. But it's how things
are sometimes done in the rational world.