Fit to Post

From Sarin to the Berg beheading: why do the news media keep silent when rumors sweep the internet?

Aside from the usual imprecations, my e-mail has been bristling with messages urging me to investigate the circumstances of Nicholas Berg's beheading. I'm told to consider the white plastic chair he was sitting on and the orange prison suit he wore—not the usual Al Qaeda gear. Then there's the lack of visible blood, and the soundtrack that records his screams before he was attacked. Are these the signs of a U.S. psy-op?

Sometimes a conspiracy theory is just an easy way to organize the ambiguities of life. But sometimes it's a plausible answer to the old forensic question: Cui bono (who benefits)? Bush's spinners certainly tried to use the beheading to undercut the prisoner-abuse scandal. But if that was the plan, it didn't work. And why assume that Iraqi insurgents are incapable of getting American prison uniforms and patio furniture?

Still, it's hard to reject anything out of hand about Iraq, since dirty tricks actually exist and the U.S. government really lies. That's why, when rumors like this one surface on the Internet, the press should check them out. Why don't they? Because online allegations are rarely regarded as newsworthy.

The Drudge Report is a guilty pleasure for journos—and the occasional Drudge scoop impels reporters to check out his hotter contentions. Not so when it comes to the political sites of all stripes proliferating on the Web. If only because these outlets have no assets to protect from libel claims, it's assumed that they have no interest in telling the truth.

The best political sites digest and interpret information from elsewhere. That's not rumor mongering; it's reflective journalism. Though the line between the two is sometimes porous, you can usually tell the difference. Besides, gossip that compels millions to take notice demands to be dispelled or affirmed. When a conspiracy theory is officially ignored, its mystique only grows. Then the whoppers spread until they seem like an alternative reality. Paranoia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Conspiracy theorists are right to claim that there are things the media don't want us to know. But censorship is not the primary reason why. Even the issue of reliability is less important than the desire to maintain a hierarchy. In this pecking order, print publications are the gold standard, followed by broadcast networks, CNN, and the rest of cable. Then come "respectable" websites like Salon and Slate. (Though the former is more adept at breaking news, the latter is more prestigious because it features writing by veterans of the printed page.) This logo-centric bias means that a supermarket tab has a better chance of getting a story picked up than does an independent Web investigator. What's fit to post is seldom fit to print.

The American press was set up as an amateur institution. It was meant to be—and was, for much of its history—an estate without boundaries, except for those set by the readers who plunk down their change. The Internet fits well within these Jeffersonian guidelines. So there's no reason why its claims shouldn't be checked out when the buzz warrants. Yes, covering rumors would empower lies. But you can't quash juicy stuff by ignoring it. And after all, the "real" media are quite capable of twisting the facts.


The Smoking Sarin

Does this sin apply to the sarin story? Ferrsure, if you believe former Reagan apparatchik Linda Chavez. "You would have thought that the discovery of an actual weapon of mass destruction in Iraq would be big news . . . but apparently not in the eyes of most newspaper editors and network television producers," Chavez wrote on May 21 in the conservative weekly Human Events. Instead, she claims, the media "chose largely to ignore one of the major stories coming out of Iraq."

It's true that the military found a detonated shell in Iraq that may have contained sarin. But this has yet to be confirmed, and even Reckless Rummy has cautioned against premature cognitive ejaculation. That hasn't stopped the right-wing press from coming to its own conclusion.

"WMD," screamed the New York Post, its front-page lead announcing that "a bomb loaded with the deadly nerve gas sarin" had exploded in Baghdad, and that "two GIs were contaminated." (Never mind that the soldiers were unharmed.) The white-shoe New York Sun was a bit more cautious. It put the onus on "Republicans on Capitol Hill" for "touting preliminary tests," but its front-page banner definitively stated that a "Sarin-Laced" bomb had been found.

In The New York Times, William Safire was similarly pseudo-circumspect. "The apparent weapon was sarin gas," Safire wrote on May 19, before launching into a rantrum much like Chavez's. "You never saw such a rush to dismiss this as not news," he wrote, blasting skeptical weapons inspectors and USA Todayfor its "Page 10 brushoff" of the story. Safire neglected to note that the Times had put its own brief sarin piece on page 11. The first rule of punditry is: Don't dis where you eat.

Still more revealing was the editorial that appeared on the page facing Safire. Even if lab tests confirm the presence of sarin, it declared, "that finding may not tell us much about whether Saddam Hussein retained a hidden chemical arsenal after supposedly destroying it." Was this a necessary corrective or a rush of color to the cheeks Safire had slapped? I report, you decide.

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