Spinning Out Of Control

Did Timothy McVeigh really confess to the Oklahoma City bombing? Why ask? The facts of the case are so much less interesting than the opinions we think up all by ourselves.

By David Futrelle
March 6, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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the expert, A.J. Liebling once wrote, has many advantages over the mere reporter. The reporter merely "writes what he sees"; the interpretive reporter, a step up on the hierarchy, "writes what he sees and what he construes to be its meaning." The expert, rising far above the tyranny of the mere fact, "writes what he construes to be the meaning of what he hasn't seen." Media critics, I might add, float highest of all, writing -- bear with me now -- what they construe to be the meaning of what the experts construe to be the meaning of what they haven't seen.

If all this was true in Liebling's time, it's even more true in ours. In this era of sound-bite politics and instant analysis, the ideal news story -- the kind of story that can rattle about the media for weeks or even months after its first appearance and roil the conspiracy buffers on the Net into ever more elaborate theoretical constructions -- is made up of about 10 percent facts and 90 percent spin. In this sense the story of Tim McVeigh's (Possible) Confession is better than ideal: The known facts in the case are very few, and even those few are up for grabs. And so the story has fallen, like an overripe apple, into the eager hands of the experts. They, in turn, have begun construing like mad.


Let's start with the central fact of the case -- the grain of sand around which the media experts have fashioned a large and lovely pearl. Fact: Last Friday evening, the Dallas Morning News published a story on its Web site that suggested the accused Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh had confessed to the crime, going so far as to say he'd done it in the daytime to ensure a hefty body count.

Now things get murky. The Dallas Morning News claims the story was based on a five-page defense memorandum it obtained through "routine news-gathering techniques" -- suggesting, perhaps, that the paper's sense of the routine is, well, a bit expansive. (But then again, it's Texas, and they do everything big down there.) McVeigh's attorney, Stephen Jones, has responded with a series of seemingly contradictory accusations: first, that the story was a hoax much like the legendary Hitler Diaries some years back (interesting association, as my therapist might say); second, that the document (which seemed to have lost its hoax status and become many hundreds of pages of stolen property possibly snagged from defense computers) was neither a "legitimate defense memorandum" nor "a confession of Tim McVeigh." Finally, the defense team issued a statement explaining that the document was a faked confession designed to persuade another suspect to talk with them about the case.

If you can't follow any of this, it doesn't really matter; no one else can either, but it hasn't stopped them from having strong opinions on the case. Long before Jones' second and third clarifications of the matter, the experts had already begun their improvisations. The story was a travesty, a fundamental breach of journalistic ethics -- or, if you preferred, it was almost a journalistic necessity, the sort of story that's so important no ethical journalist could justify keeping it bottled up even for a moment. The publishing of the alleged confession had tainted the jury pool and destroyed McVeigh's chance of a fair trial; it hadn't.


Several observers declared the controversy to be a turning point in American, if not world, history. In the Washington Post, under a headline suggesting laconically that "Publication of Alleged Bomb Admission May Alter Course of Trial, Journalism," Tom Kenworthy quoted from several observers who'd been shaken if not stirred by the recent events. "This is one of the saddest moments in journalism, and now it will be one of the saddest moments in law," lamented Larry Pozner, vice president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Speaking to a reporter for the Denver Post, Pozner amplified his concerns -- suggesting that the media was in danger of sinking to the moral level of ... the legal profession. "Lord knows the legal profession has inflicted terrible wounds upon itself," he said. "The legal profession has damaged its own credibility many times. The media didn't have to follow us down that path." A retired federal judge agreed. "This kind of conduct qualifies journalists for a place below lawyers in terms of public respect, in terms of ethics," Jim Carrigan told the Post.

Meanwhile, on the journalism front, things were looking much cheerier. At least to HotWired media critic Jon Katz, who told Kenworthy that the story was "a landmark, it really is." You see, the story was posted on the Dallas Morning News Web site seven hours before it ran in the paper. For Katz, always an eager construer, the story merely reinforced, well, all that stuff he's been saying for months about the earth-shaking power of the Web and mediaphobia and journalism and history and stuff. "It's journalism history," he gushed happily, adding that the breaking of the story on the Web was "a profoundly significant journalistic event that should show the way for many papers who are phobic about new media that they shouldn't be afraid of it, they should use it and use it in innovative ways." What a difference a third of a day makes!

Still, for all his enthusiasm, Katz was hardly the wildest of the media construers. That title must go, as it has so often in the past, to the one and only Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of London's Sunday Telegraph. For Evans-Pritchard, a Vince Foster buff who seems to channel many of his writings directly from the slightly overheated brains of the Lone Gunmen on TV's "X-Files," McVeigh's "confession" simply reinforced Evans-Prichard's theory that the bombing was really the work of secret Nazi plotters.


Evans-Pritchard -- who last month reported with palpable enthusiasm that the government's case was "disintegrating" and that it was "quite possible " that McVeigh would be acquitted -- now suggests that the confession story "is not quite what it seems. The confession ... was in fact a bluff," a "pseudo-confession" that merely "parrots the government case." Apparently relying on sources so secret he can't even allude to them in print, Evans-Pritchard has concluded that "McVeigh told his defence lawyer that he would confess to everything that the government had alleged if his team looked for evidence of a broader conspiracy. His purpose was to shield his neo-Nazi comrades by taking the blame himself." It's all very simple, Evans-Pritchard seems to be suggesting: Whatever just happened simply reinforces everything I would have said anyway. Facts all come with my point of view; facts just do what I want them to.

In all the press coverage of the controversy, only one expert came close (at least as far as I'm concerned) to capturing the elusive significance of The Confession That Wasn't, or Possibly Was. That was Andrew Cohen, a trial lawyer and commentator for the Denver Post. In a March 2 story with the refreshingly honest headline "'Confession' story baffles everyone," Cohen admitted that "It's hard to know what to make of Friday's astonishing news," and that "we probably will never know the answers" to some of the story's most troubling questions. Cohen does venture a few tentative thoughts on the events. "The McVeigh camp ... needed a story like this to surface at this time like its lawyers need holes in their heads," he comments, and it's hard to disagree. All of which seems right on the mark to me -- an excellent job of remote construal.


Still, Cohen concludes, it's too soon to write the final chapter on this strange story -- a seemingly reasonable enough conclusion, given that the trial has yet to begin. "There may be more stunning media revelations in the days and weeks to come," he notes, with lawyerly caution. Perhaps. It's too soon to tell.

David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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