Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler title Graphic
Caveat lector

3 September 1999

Our current howler: Still Waco after all these years

Synopsis: The crackpots and crazies aren’t all in militias. They’re 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 know?

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 true—and 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 statement—his 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 Waco investigation?

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 troubling—and 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 cover—it'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.