"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It is difficult to watch these clips from yesterday’s House hearings investigating the absolute, deliberate lies regarding Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch fed to the American public by the U.S. military — with an eager and accommodating assist from our excellent and intrepid media — and feel anything other than disgust (and this is just beyond comment). But as anger-inducing as it all is, there is really nothing remarkable about any of it.
What these episodes actually do is illustrate how virtually every rotted and broken branch of our political and media culture operate:
First, it has been well-known for several years that the U.S. military outright invented lies regarding literally every aspect of the Jessica Lynch story. And the Tillman family for years has been vocally complaining about the lies they were told by the Pentagon regarding the circumstances surrounding Pat Tillman’s death, the pressure on other soldiers to conceal the truth, and the crass and disgusting exploitation of those lies to serve the administration’s political interests. None of this is new. So why is Congress holding hearings to investigate these matters only now?
The answer, of course, is because the Republicans who controlled Congress for the last four years absolutely suppressed any attempt whatsoever to exert oversight on the administration. They not only investigated nothing, they aggressively blocked every real investigation into allegations of wrongdoing and corruption on the part of the administration. Our government literally ceased to function the way it is designed to, because Congressional Republicans deliberately abdicated their duty of checks on the executive and actively helped to conceal every improper and deceitful act.
The only reason any of this is being aired now is because the American people removed the President’s party from control of Congress and they are no longer able to keep concealed the Bush administration’s misconduct.
Second, I defy anyone to go back and read the April and May, 2003 tongue-wagging, mindless American press accounts of Jessica Lynch’s epic firefight against the Enemy; the severe gun shot and stabbing wounds she suffered; the torture to which she was subjected while in the Iraqi hospital; and the daring, gun-blazing rescue of her by our Special Forces, and then try to claim that we have a functioning, healthy political press in this country that serves as a check on government deceit and corruption. It is impossible for any minimally honest person to make that claim in light of those stories.
The seminal article “reporting” the Lynch Fraud was published on April 3, 2003, from The Washington Post‘s Sue Schmidt and Vernon Loeb, which mindlessly and uncritically passed on one false claim after the next, beginning with this paragraph: “Pfc. Jessica Lynch, rescued Tuesday from an Iraqi hospital, fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed the Army’s 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition, U.S. officials said yesterday.” If one’s metric is accuracy, it goes downhill from there.
That is the article that spawned virtually every other newspaper and network news program to repeat those lies. As but one of literally countless examples, ABC News’ Robin Roberts said this to Diane Sawyer on the April 3 broadcast of Good Morning America:
And we keep finding out, Diane, how remarkable it was. Military officials are calling Lynch’s rescue from Iraqi captivity, the first successful rescue of an American POW in almost 60 years. . . .
This morning, we are learning dramatic new details of her rescue and her capture a week ago by Iraqi forces. According to “The Washington Post,” Lynch fought fiercely after her unit was ambushed near Nasiriyah, shooting several Iraqis during the attack. Emptying her weapon before being stabbed and finally taken prisoner. The young soldier was shot at least once in the leg.
Lynch was kept in this run-down hospital that had been converted into an Iraqi military headquarters. Her whereabouts unknown until a local doctor handed a note to US Marines in the area saying there was a wounded soldier inside. The daring nighttime rescue was right out of a Hollywood thriller as seen in this footage released by the Pentagon just this morning.
The excuse from Schmidt and Loeb, of course, is the same one which such journalists always give when they uncritically print total lies fed to them by their friends in the government and military: hey, what do you want from us, this is what our sources told us? The Post‘s then-Ombudsman, Michael Getler, responded to reader concerns about the accuracy of the original report, by saying this:
Schmidt and Loeb are experienced reporters, and there is no reason to doubt they were told what they reported, and by a source in whom they had confidence. They say it is certain that the descriptions they used are included in sensitive internal intelligence reporting about the rescue. The official silence about Lynch, they suggest, may be due to intelligence classification, possible war crime investigations or other issues.
So, “experienced reporters” Schmidt and Loeb were lied to by their sources, causing them to publish a humiliatingly (though flamboyantly promoted) false “news” story that had a huge impact on how the American press discussed this war. Yet they continue to defend not only their own actions, but those of their lying sources.
This is what turned out to be the real story here — that “experienced reporters” Schmidt and Loeb were completely manipulated by lying, scheming high-level officials in the military and government, and they fell for it by turning the front page of The Washington Post into a venue for false, highly manipulative government propaganda.
So what have Schmidt and Loeb done about that story — the real story here? Absolutely nothing. In fact, here is what the completely unrepentant Vernon Loeb and his editor said months later, even once it was clear that they were totally duped:
Vernon Loeb, who wrote the story with another reporter, Susan Schmidt, calls their sourcing solid. He concedes, however, that the tale could have benefited from stronger and more prominent caveats about the sketchiness of intelligence reports. “My lesson learned is I should have been more cautious in the way I wrote this story,” he says. “But, having said that, I would have written the story anyway.” . . . .
But he and Post Managing Editor Steve Coll say they have no reason to doubt that their April 3 story accurately reflected the information contained in those reports–even if the reports had inaccuracies. “We had multiple sources because multiple people were reading the same intelligence report,” Coll says.
So The Washington Post thinks it did nothing seriously wrong here and, astonishingly, defends the behavior of “its sources” as admirable and honorable (just a little inaccurate due to that notorious “fog of war” that put imaginary bullet and stab wounds in Jessica Lynch as a result of a heroic and inspiring firefight that never happened).
And most of all, Schmidt and Loeb continue to protect the identity of their sources, and will until the day they die. The fact that their sources fed them lies in order to manipulate American public opinion about the war is irrelevant to them. Over and over and over, our most influential American media outlets publish false stories based on government “sources” who purposely lie to them, and they never report on the real story — who are the government sources lying to the American public while hiding behind shields of anonymity granted to them, and maintained by, our nation’s “journalists”?
Most of our nation’s journalists do not report on government conduct. They participate in it actively and consciously as government spokesmen. Judy Miller is the symbol of our political press, not its aberration.
Third, the only real reason that we learned of the pervasive deceit in the Jessica Lynch case is because the foreign press — principally the BBC and The Guardian — aggressively investigated the U.S. government’s claims. And they did so because officials in the British Government were appalled at how deceitful were the claims being made by the Pentagon, and how passive and uncritical our press was in passing it along.
This lengthy May 15, 2003 story from The Guardian — based on a BBC documentary — documented why the Jessica Lynch rescue tale told by the U.S. government was “one of the most stunning pieces of news management yet conceived.” This is what it reported about the stories concerning her “rescue”:
This Sunday, the BBC’s Correspondent programme reveals the inside story of the rescue that may not have been as heroic as portrayed, and of divisions at the heart of the allies’ media operation.
“In reality we had two different styles of news media management,” says Group Captain Al Lockwood, the British army spokesman at central command. “I feel fortunate to have been part of the UK one.” . . .
That American approach — to skim over the details — focusing instead on the broad message, led to tension behind the scenes with the British. Downing Street’s man in Doha, Simon Wren, was furious that on the first few days of the war the Americans refused to give any information at Centcom. The British were put in the difficult position of having to fill in the gaps, off the record. . .
Towards the end of the conflict, Wren wrote a confidential five-page letter to Alastair Campbell complaining that the American briefers weren’t up to the job. He described the Lynch presentation as embarrassing.
Wren yesterday described the Lynch incident as “hugely overblown” and symptomatic of a bigger problem. “The Americans never got out there and explained what was going on in the war,” he said. “All they needed to be was open and honest. They were too vague, too scared of engaging with the media.” He said US journalists “did not put them under pressure” . . . “The American media didn’t put them under pressure so they were allowed to get away with it,” Wren said. “They didn’t feel they needed to change.”
In the wake of the BBC report, Time Magazine — which did absolutely nothing to investigate the Jessica Lynch deceit nor attempt to discover who was responsible for it — helpfully jumped in to defend the Bush administration by proclaiming that “the British network may be guilty of exaggeration itself, with its claim that the Pentagon manipulated information to produce ‘one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived.’”
Identically, the American media did virtually nothing to investigate the Bush administration’s absolute falsehoods about how Pat Tillman died. We know about it solely by virtue of the heroic relentlessness of the Tillman family — led by his mother and brother, Kevin — in doing the job which our press and Congress so profoundly failed to do.
And finally, we have the hordes of cowardly warmongers — beginning with the President and Vice President — who constantly hide behind the troops and crassly exploit them as props in service of their political agenda, even though their “concern” for the troops could not be any more exploitative and insincere.
Just look at this repulsive post by Powerline’s John Hinderaker yesterday as he tries (needless to say) to defend the Government’s conduct in the Tillman case by telling his readers they need not listen to Kevin Tillman’s accusations because he is “an antiwar activist who has posted on far-left web sites.”
What does Hinderaker omit from that description? That Kevin Tillman was in Afghanistan along with his brother, having volunteered to risk his life to fight for the U.S. Army in the wake of 9/11. But because he came to conclude that the invasion of Iraq was wrong — and because he has persistently demanded that the truth about the Bush administration’s conduct in his brother’s case be exposed — he is subjected to discrediting smears from smarmy little chest-beating play-acting warriors like John Hinderaker.
The “troops” are nothing but cheap and empty props to them. Before it was revealed that Pat Tillman was both an atheist and against the war in Iraq, he was paraded around after his death as though he, standing alone, was the Symbol and Justification for the warmongering Bush movement. Ann Coulter said that “Tillman was an American original: virtuous, pure and masculine like only an American male can be.” Sean Hannity constantly invoked his name with antiwar guests.
Yet once it was revealed what Tillman’s actual political views were, they both simply declared that they “do not believe” it. What mattered to them was not who he really was — they could not care less about that — but his use to them in service of their twisted political propaganda.
* * * * * * *
This is the sad and wretched process which has propelled our political system during the entire Bush presidency. The Bush administration creates falsehoods to manipulate public opinion and then feeds them to influential and prestigious media outlets.
Eager to be used, our most prominent journalists then repeat those falsehoods mindlessly and uncritically. Worse, when it is revealed that what they were fed was false, they say nothing and continue to protect the identity of those responsible, in the hope that their “sources” will continue to use them.
Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans blocked any efforts to investigate any of these matters, while right-wing uber-patriot cowards and smear artists discredited those who sought to disrupt or expose any of this. Most significant political events in our country over the last six years have been the by-product of this rancid machine. The Tillman and Lynch cases are merely vivid illustrations of how that process has worked.He might turn the speech into the usual denunciation of traitors and thought-criminals, but that was a little too obvious, while to invent a victory at the front, or some triumph of over-production in the Ninth Three-Year Plan, might complicate the records too much.
What was needed was a piece of pure fantasy. Suddenly there sprang into his mind, ready-made as it were, the image of a certain Comrade Ogilvy, who had recently died in battle, in heroic circumstances. There were occasions when Big Brother devoted his Order for the Day to commemorating some humble, rank-and-file Party member whose life and death he held up as an example worthy to be followed.
Today he should commemorate Comrade Ogilvy. It was true that there was no such person as Comrade Ogilvy, but a few lines of print and a couple of faked photographs would soon bring him into existence.
That is what the press passed along — the same press about which Newsweek‘s Senior White House Correspondent Richard Wolffe said, chatting with Tony Snow: “the press here does a fantastic job of adhering to journalistic standards and covering politics in general.” Fantastic.
UPDATE II: Actual Journalist Bill Moyers has a 90-minute PBS documentary tonight, entitled “Buying the War,” which airs at 9:00 pm Eastern. Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher — in an informative preview — calls it “the most powerful indictment of the news media for falling down in its duties in the run-up to the war in Iraq.” Moyers is a superb journalist and documentarian and I have no doubt that it will be a well-spent (if not depressing and infuriating) 90 mintues. In addition to PBS stations, the program can be viewed here.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)