"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)
Following up on yesterday’s post, I want to return to the topic of Sunday’s column by NYT Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, because the more one thinks about it, the more extraordinary it is. It is really a watershed moment for revealing what our media is and what role it plays.
The profound (and confessed) journalistic failures of the NYT in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq is, without question, one of the worst scandals in that paper’s history — perhaps its worst. At exactly the time when journalistic skepticism was needed most, as our country debated whether to invade another country which had not attacked us, the Times allowed itself to be completely manipulated by the government and/or eagerly participated in its propaganda campaign, obediently reciting the government’s false claims on its front pages and selling this war to its then-trusting readers.
The Times itself has been forced to acknowledge these failures and solemnly insists that it has learned, and taken to heart, the important lessons about the need for skepticism when it comes to government claims about war. Back in February, when Michael Gordon’s gullible, government-reliant reports about Iran’s actions in Iraq prompted a tidal wave of blogosphere-generated (and FAIR-generated) reader complaints, then-Public Editor Byron Calame spoke with NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller about these complaints:
The situation [of the Times' reporting on Bush's claims about Iran] closely parallels the pre-war period when The Times prominently reported that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Deeply shamed when they were not found, the paper publicly acknowledged that its coverage had been “insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged.”
Times editors clearly were mindful of the W.M.D. coverage as they pursued the Iranian weapons issue. “W.M.D. has informed everything we’ve done on Iran,” Bill Keller, the executive editor, told me three days after the Baghdad briefing. “We don’t have to tell the reporters to be as skeptical as possible. W.M.D. restored a level of skepticism.”
But Hoyt’s column yesterday demonstrates that exactly the opposite is true. The Times is still doing exactly what it did before the invasion of Iraq — the activities that supposedly brought it such “shame” — and in many cases, it is exactly the same people who are doing it.
Just consider what Hoyt’s criticisms yesterday mean. These criticisms apply not only to one article, but rather, to a whole series of articles. The criticisms concern not some obscure topic or isolated special report, but rather, the single most important political and journalistic issue of this decade — the war in Iraq and the American media’s coverage of government claims about that war.
And most significantly of all, Hoyt’s criticisms are grounded not in a technical violation of some petty rule or failure to adhere to some debatable journalistic custom, but rather, involve the worst journalistic sin of all: namely, a failure to treat government claims with skepticism and a willingness mindlessly to recite such claims without scrutiny. If a newspaper simply prints government claims without skepticism, what remote value does it have other than as a propaganda amplifier? None. And yet, as Hoyt’s column potently demonstrates, that is exactly what the NYT is doing in Iraq — yet again.
In light of all of this, what rational argument can be mounted in response to the claim that the NYT is simply not interested in practicing real journalism when it comes to the Bush administration’s actions in Iraq, or worse, that at least some editorial factions at the Times support the war and want to prop up the administration’s political case? What other explanation is possible in light of the clear, lengthy record of the newspaper?
Just consider the record of Michael Gordon — who, I want to stress, is not personally the problem but merely the most vivid manifestation of the ills of American political journalism. Based exclusively upon what has appeared in the Times itself — thus excluding all external criticisms of his reporting — this is Gordon’s record of shame over the last four years:
* A May 26, 2004 NYT Editors’ Note identifies several articles written or co-written by Gordon about the Bush administration’s pro-war Iraq claims and says about that reporting “that it was not as rigorous as it should have been”; that the war-fueling case “was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged”; and the reporting was flawed because “Administration officials were allowed to hold forth at length” with virtually no challenge or dissent.
* On January 28, 2007, NYT Public Editor Byron Calame reports that “Times editors have carefully made clear their disapproval of the expression of a personal opinion about Iraq on national television by the paper’s chief military correspondent, Michael Gordon,” in which Gordon expressed clear support for President Bush’s “surge” plan. The Times Washington Bureau Chief, Philip Taubman, said that Gordon “stepped over the line” by admitting that he supported escalation in Iraq.
* On February 27, 2007, Calame gently though clearly criticized an article by Gordon written about the Bush administration’s “saber-rattling about Iranian intervention in Iraq” (and other articles on the same topic) on the ground that (a) Gordon’s article violated the paper’s rules on the use of anonymous government sources; (b) the reported government claims about Iran “needed some qualification” about whether they were based on evidence or inference; (c) readers “deserved a clearer sense” of whether such a belief about the Iranian leadership’s involvement in Iraqi insurgent attacks is shared by a consensus of intelligence officials (which, as even the President subsequently admitted, it was not); and, most incriminatingly (given its obvious similarity to Gordon’s pre-war failures), (d) “editors didn’t make sure all conflicting views were always clearly reported” and the “story also should have noted . . . that the president’s view on this point differed from the intelligence assessment given readers of [Gordon's] Feb. 10 article.”
* Hoyt’s column yesterday identifies a series of articles about Iraq, many written or co-written by Gordon, which “slipped into a routine of quoting the president and the military uncritically about Al Qaeda’s role in Iraq,” and further criticized the articles because “in using the language of the administration,” these articles presented a misleading picture of Iraq.
Does anyone at the NYT really need help seeing the clear pattern here? What more does Gordon need to do in order to show how journalistically irresponsible he is, how either incapable or unwilling he is to treat Bush administration claims about the war with skepticism and do anything other than serve as an obedient vessel for pro-war government claims?
This is a disgraceful record that continuously exhibits the same journalistic sins and the same exceedingly transparent pro-war, pro-Bush bias, not just bias that Gordon harbors personally but bias which time and again permeates his “reporting.” And again, this is the record as established by the Times itself. There are countless other instances where Gordon does this that do not make it into the pages of his newspaper, but which are nonetheless egregious.
And yet, the Editors of the NYT continue not only to make Gordon their featured star reporter when it comes both to Iraq and related stories about Iran, but also to approve of the same defective, corrupt journalistic methods that are his hallmark. The deficiencies in his reporting are not complex or hidden. They are all right there out in the open, easy to see. All one has to do is read Gordon’s articles and it is immediately apparent that, time and again, they do nothing other than recite highly questionable and highly inflammatory claims from the military and the Bush administration, and he conveys them with no meaningful question, challenge, dissent, or qualification.
And he does this not once, but over and over. This is exactly what the NYT claims to be so ashamed of its having done prior to the war, and yet it so plainly continues to do it, four years later — in the form of the same reporter and likely the same editors. After all, as Hoyt’s column demonstrate, it is not just Gordon who is guilty of these failures. If bloggers can see it, and Hoyt sees it, isn’t it safe to assume that the editors who approve of these articles see it, too? How can they not?
There is important and revealing symbolism in having these criticisms voiced in the NYT by Hoyt. As blogger and journalist Joe Gandleman, who worked briefly with Hoyt, notes, Hoyt has one of the most impressive resumes in modern journalism — including his work at McClatchy, which exhibited the requisite skepticism of Bush’s pre-war claims exactly at the time when the NYT, along with most of our establishment press, so notably — and so destructively — failed to do so.
And it bears emphasizing how obvious, basic and long-recognized are the dangers posed when journalists fail to subject government claims — especially about war — to real skepticism. In 1994 — on the 30-year anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident that spawned the escalation of the Vietnam war — journalists Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon documented the role of the shoddy reporting by the American media, tragically led by the NYT, which enabled the government to perpetuate false claims about that incident:
Thirty years ago, it all seemed very clear.
“American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression”, announced a Washington Post headline on Aug. 5, 1964.
That same day, the front page of the New York Times reported: “President Johnson has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and ‘certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam’ after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.”
But there was no “second attack” by North Vietnam — no “renewed attacks against American destroyers.” By reporting official claims as absolute truths, American journalism opened the floodgates for the bloody Vietnam War.
A pattern took hold: continuous government lies passed on by pliant mass media…leading to over 50,000 American deaths and millions of Vietnamese casualties. . . .
An exhaustive new book, The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam, begins with a dramatic account of the Tonkin Gulf incidents. In an interview, author Tom Wells told us that American media “described the air strikes that Johnson launched in response as merely `tit for tat’ — when in reality they reflected plans the administration had already drawn up for gradually increasing its overt military pressure against the North.”
Why such inaccurate news coverage? Wells points to the media’s “almost exclusive reliance on U.S. government officials as sources of information” — as well as “reluctance to question official pronouncements on ‘national security issues.’”
Just read Hoyt’s column from yesterday, along with much (though not all) of the reporting on Iraq over the last year by Gordon and the NYT, and see if there is a single material difference between what happened then, what happened in 2002-2003, and what is happening now. There is none.
It is hard to imagine a bigger or more important journalistic scandal than the one highlighted yesterday by the Times Public Editor — namely, the NYT continues, systematically, to engage in precisely the same gullible, government-worshipping reporting about Iraq that it engaged in prior to the invasion, perpetuated by some of the same reporters and approved (presumably) by some of the same editors, despite how transparent and severe are the journalistic sins. Contrary to its solemn assurances, the Times obviously has learned nothing — or, if it has learned anything, it is consciously disregarding those lessons.
Three years after Judy Miller’s departure from that paper, the newspapers’s own Public Editor has scathingly pointed out what is glaringly obvious in plain sight — the defining practices of Judy Miller (blind, uncritical trust in the government’s and military’s sources) continue to shape and dominate much of the paper’s coverage about Iraq and issues related to Iran. Judy Miller, like Michael Gordon, was but a symbol, an extreme expression, of a rotted journalistic system still in place at the Times and most other establishment media outlets in this country.
That her co-writer and editors responsible for those profound failures continue not only to work at the Times, but to remain in charge of its war coverage using exactly the same methods that brought such shame to that paper, is as compelling evidence of the state of American journalism as one can imagine. “Judy Miller” is not just a disgraced journalist, but is also a method of journalism that extends far beyond her.
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)