Never Mind Stepashin...
Yes, Boris Yeltsin fired the government last week. And yes, a "dramatic" impeachment proceeding was held over the weekend, meaning that sometime over the course of the last two weeks, Russia plunged once again into the proverbial "constitutional crisis," in which the "future of the nation" was at stake.
All of which sounds like a big story, one which you'd think any responsible biweekly Russia-based magazine would be obligated to put on its cover and report on in detail. We actually thought the same thing, up until this past weekend.
And yet, when push came to shove, we realized: the dismissal of yet another Yeltsin cabinet is a very minor story, compared to the war in Yugoslavia. For Americans living anywhere in the world, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia isn't just a big story, or even just the biggest story among other big stories--it's really the only story.
The following series of interviews is the eXile's attempt to set in motion the process of forcing everyone to stand up and be counted. We picked out a diverse selection of people we believed had helped propagate untruths in the name of the war effort, called these people up, and attempted to force them to admit their complicity in the evolving national disaster that is the Kosovo war.
Some of the people we reached managed to shock even us with their incredible cynicism and careerism--and idiocy. so if we can't realistically change them, then hopefully, we can shame them.
QUESTION #1: Why is our government so afraid of standing by its public statements?
A curious story hit the news wires last Thursday, May 13. U.S. Representative Curt Weldon told the Associated Press that day that Madeleine Albright had said, in a closed House Committee meeting, that Jesse Jackson was "making things much worse" by having negotiated with Slodoban Milosevic and by allowing himself to be photographed praying with him. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering subsequently went on the record with his own toned-down version of an attack on Jackson, saying "our efforts are not helped--indeed they are hurt--by uncoordinated, freelance efforts at negotiating with Milosevic." Nonetheless, the State Department refused to either confirm or deny Albright's remarks.
Rep. Weldon in the same article said the incident showed that Albright was indeed attacking Jackson, but was "afraid to do so publicly."
We were not only stunned that Albright had the gall to attack Jackson after the latter had done a legitimately good deed in retrieving those three American POWs, we were amazed that she would say something so politically inexpedient. After all, Jackson returned from Belgrade to a hero's welcome, and to do anything other than praise his mission, at least for the time being, would seem equivalent to political suicide. One could expect Albright to have wrong opinions, but not to fly so boldly in the face of pollster wisdom.
So we called the State Department to check on the story, and do you know what we found? Four days after the story first hit the wires, the State Department was still neither confirming nor denying the story. And in three days of trying, they wouldn't confirm or deny it. The first State Department spokesman we contacted, David Denny, did everything possible to shake us off the story, using a variety of tactics that ranged from the unbelievably silly to the near-libelous. His first move was to deny having ever heard of the story:
Denny: No I hadn't heard of that story at all...When did that thing run?
After that, he made the first of what would be many hints that Rep. Weldon's statements couldn't be trusted:
eXile: The AP story quoted Representative Curt Weldon as saying...
Denny: (Laughing) Oh, so it came from [raising voice] Curt Weldon...
eXile: That's right.
Denny then attempted to reason us out of doing the story, attempting to use Euclidian logic to prove that that story we were holding in our hands couldn't possibly have really been published:
Denny: You know, we had a briefing on the 13th, we had a briefing on the 14th, we didn't have a briefing yesterday, but we had a briefing today...None of the journalists who...And Secretary Albright herself gave two public appearances yesterday in which she took public questions. And nobody asked her this question.
eXile: Yes, but the story isn't in question. It's not a question that's coming out of nowhere. It's already a published report by AP. And it came from a U.S. congressman...
Denny: Aww...Just thinking this through, just you and I--if this had been real, she would have been asked. It's the kind of thing--as I said, she had two press appearances yesterday with...
Here Denny pulled out the age-old "blind your peasant-applicant in the glow cast by the grandeur of the state" technique, name-dropping Albright's reception list:
Denny: ...she spoke after having breakfast with the Foreign Minister of Korea, and then she spoke after meeting with the new King of Jordan.
eXile: [unimpressed] Yeah, but, I mean....
Denny: And she took questions at both of them.
eXile: But the report is definitely out there...
Denny then attempted to distract us from the question by searching for an opening:
Denny: If this thing ran on the 13th--how is it that you're just seeing it now?
eXile: We're not a daily newspaper... so we're putting together materials from reports throughout the last two weeks.
Denny: It's just that you've picked a curious time of day for you to call us. I mean, we're still open for business.
eXile: That's exactly why I'm calling you now, because you're still open for business.
Denny then told me he'd "check the story out" and call me back. In the meantime, we called Rep. Weldon's office and spoke to Weldon's press spokesman, Pete Peterson. Peterson confirmed that Weldon had in fact reported Albright's remarks exactly as they'd been quoted in the AP story. He added that the story had been published in both Washington newspapers and was on the CNN website, adding, "It's impossible that they don't know about the story."
So why, we asked, are they pretending that they don't know about it?
"That's easy," he said. "Because they're embarrassed by it."
But, we asked, why pretend they don't know about it? It seems like a pretty inefficient means of coping with a question from a reporter.
"That just shows you how desperate they are," Peterson said. He added that Albright's tactic of speaking out in a committee meeting, out of the reach of the cameras, was designed to allow her to get her message out without having to publicly take responsibility for her position. Which is exactly the way things turned out--the State Department simply refused to respond to a story that had been confirmed time and time again.
When we called Denny back the next day, he equivocated again. He said that he'd found the original AP story, had faxed it to his superiors, and was waiting for word on what to say about it. We asked him if he had done anything in the meantime to ascertain the veracity of the report.
Denny: Look, I'm sure your AP there is a solid outlet, and it looks to me like the Pickering quotes are correct...
eXile: Incidentally, we called Curt Weldon's office after last speaking with you, and they confirmed that the congressman reported Albright's quote exactly as the AP said he did.
Denny: My only concern is with what Curt Weldon said Madeleine Albright said.
This is the style of the current administration--saying something without saying it. Denny here wants me to understand that he thinks Weldon is lying, but won't say so overtly. We pressed him:
eXile: Does this mean that you believe that Congressman Weldon may have misquoted Secretary Albright?
Denny: [after a long pause] I'm saying I'm concerned with the news story.
Denny promised to call back with his final confirmation, but never did. The following day we called back. Denny, it seemed was not available. A new press secretary said she couldn't help us, that only Denny could. When we called back again, we got another press secretary, and the same line about Denny. Finally, we called a third time, and were sent to yet another press secretary, a woman who tried to pass us off once again:
DOS: If you spoke to him, then I would prefer if you spoke to him...
eXile: I've been trying now for three days to get a confirmation or denial on this one quote. I've been passed back and forth between different people. This thing happened six days ago, so I expect that you've all been in a briefing about this, and there's no reason why I have to deal with any one person. It's a simple thing, is the quote true or not? I would hope that you'd be able to answer that for me.
DOS: Well I can't answer that, sir, because this is the first I've heard of it.
eXile: It's impossible that this is the first time you've heard of it! Representative Curt Weldon...
DOS: Now you can't tell me what is impossible if I tell you that this is the first time I've heard of the report.
eXile: It was all over the news...
DOS: Maybe I didn't listen to the news, and maybe I wasn't interested. This is the first time that I've ever heard of this. I'm a press officer, and I sit in this office, and I have not heard that before. Now if you want Mr. Denny, he'll call you back...
eXile: But he hasn't called me back. That's the whole point. This is the way bureaucracies work. I call one person, and they pass me off to another person, and in the end I get a non-denial denial. And I'm already left with the impression that if I don't get an answer today, I'm going to have to write in my article that the State Department refuses to say unequivocally that it does not think that Curt Weldon is lying. I'm going to have write that if you don't give me an answer.
DOS: Well, sir, you can write what you please, but...
eXile: I can write what I please? So I can write that the State Department is not willing to say that Curt Weldon is not lying?
DOS: We don't control what people write in their papers!
eXile: That's not an answer! I'll put it another way: do you have a problem with that statement if I put it in?
DOS: I can't tell you what to put in your paper!
eXile: Yes, you can--you can control what goes in by giving me answers.
DOS: But I don't have the answer!
eXile: Well, can you get it?
DOS: I will try to get Mr. Denny, he will call you back...
eXile: But you're not going to call me back, that's the whole point. I have you on the phone right now--can you please get the answer?
DOS: Wait a minute, let's back up...Now, you don't know what I'm going to do. If I tell you...
eXile: But I'm telling you that I haven't been called back in three days.
DOS: But you haven't spoken to me.
eXile: But I've spoken to your organization. You answer for your organization
DOS: You don't know who I am.
eXile: I don't care who you are. I...
DOS: [hangs up]
Advice to mainstream reporters: if this ever happens to you, be smart and report the State Department remarks as follows:
"'You can write what you want,' the spokeswoman said.'"
QUESTION # 2: Why was Bill Clinton allowed to criticize Hollywood and the television industry for producing a "culture of violence" without once being accused of doing the same through the bombing of Yugoslavia?
At first, we thought it was just a misprint; when the AP's White House pool correspondent Kevin Galvin reported on a May 16 Bill Clinton speech denouncing Hollywood and the TV industry for filling theaters and the airwaves with violence, he failed to mention the war in Yugoslavia anywhere in the article. After all, the hypocrisy of Clinton's speech was so glaring that it couldn't possibly have escaped Galvin's notice; while on the one hand berating the TV industry for exposing children to too much violence--even going to so far as to directly blame the TV and movie industry for the Columbine High shooting--Clinton himself was orchestrating, through the war in Yugoslavia, the longest-running violent television program in America. Of course, there can't be any doubt that whatever pseudo-shrinks the Clinton administration whipped out to provide the President's speech fodder (i.e., evidence that A-team reruns result in high school mass murderers) would also agree that missile-cam videos of exploding trucks and infantry columns are also violent.
Furthermore, to cover the Clinton speech correctly, Galvin and everyone else in the White House press pool should have asked the targets of Clinton's speech, specifically the members of the TV and film industry, for detailed responses. Two questions they should naturally have asked moviemakers and TV moguls are: (1) Is the President's speech hypocritical given the fact that he's the commander of a violent televised war, and (2) Given the president's reliance upon TV news to propagandize his military and diplomatic objectives, does he have any right to dictate programming decisions?
Rather than ask those questions, though, each of the three reporters we approached about their coverage of this story--Galvin, Laurence McQuillan of Reuters, and John Harris of the Washington Post--chose instead to focus on the fact that Clinton made the speech the night before a $2 million fundraiser organized by Hollywood movie moguls. The three articles, however, were almost exactly identical, not only in their failure to mention the war, but through their inclusion of virtually the same excerpts from Clinton's speech and through their near-identical lead paragraphs. It was a classic case of herd reporting.
Harris and Galvin refused to take our calls, and we'll get to what happened with Reuters in a moment, but we did manage to speak with Bill Mann, an AP assignment editor in Galvin's Washington office. His comments were revealing:
eXile: Clinton gave a speech this weekend about the "culture of violence" perpetuated by the television and news industry, but not a single report that I could find mentioned the fact that it was Clinton who started the war in Yugoslavia, and that he himself is the biggest source of...
Mann: Television violence...
eXile: ...violence on television in America. Was this just an oversight, or was it something that didn't occur to anybody who was covering the story?
Mann: Oh, I don't know, I think it has been mentioned in some of the papers here, but as for...I guess it didn't occur. But I wasn't there, so I have no idea.
eXile: Should Galvin have mentioned the war in his report?... If you had been covering this story, would you have thought to bring that up?
Mann: I don't know. The violence he's talking about is a different kind of violence. But it probably deserves a mention, I guess.
Well, that was easy. But just moments after Mann admitted his reporter's mistake, he offered into a lengthy explanation of the many difficulties inherent in the profession of Washington pool reporting, factors which he said make it difficult to satisfy everyone. We're reprinting it here mainly to give our readers a glimpse into the grasping, incoherent self-image of the average Washington pool reporter:
Mann: Anyway that's just one of the...believe me, that's just one minor incongruity in this (laughing) business.
eXile: A "minor incongruity"?
Mann: Yeah, believe me, a lot of this is just really, you know, weird...
eXile: Minor incongruity--compared to what?
Mann: It's just a, you know, a very strange place. It's just a...It really is. You know, not everything can be...you know...not everything can be taken at face value...Anything in this city...You know, listen, there's different politics all around the world let's just say, this city is just a...um...quite a lot like that, you know. You understand.
eXile: I sure do.
Mann was at least a nice guy, which is more than we can say for the other reporters we contacted about the Clinton speech story. When we tried to contact Laurence McQuillan, a Reuters desk editor in Washington shot us down with a vigorous display of fiery verbal gymnastics. The editor, who declined to give his name, nearly melted our tape recorder at the mere suggestion that his reporter was fair game for an interview:
Reuters: ...I don't think we'll be able to help you because, generally speaking, reporters don't comment on stories. You might able to find a substitute, but, generally speaking, we just don't.
eXile: Why not? That's preposterous. Journalists refusing to talk to other journalists...
Reuters: Look, buddy! I'm telling you generally that we don't. Now, if you want I'll take your name and number down, or if you want I'll just hang up.
We at the eXile thought people had stopped saying "Look, buddy!" somewhere around 1953, but apparently not.
eXile: (laughing) You want to take my number? Okay, sure, it's oh-one-one, seven, oh--
Reuters: Yeah, uh-huh.
eXile: Nine-five, two--
Reuters: Yeah, yeah.
eXile: Six-five...(laughing) I can see you're taking down this number because you definitely intend to call me back, right?
Reuters: I intend to pass it along to Larry. What he'll do...
eXile: This is amazing. You're a journalist, and you're telling me that you won't answer a journalist's questions...
Reuters: Okay, that's it.
eXile: You're a hero, dude...
Reuters: (hangs up).
These are the people who help Clinton get away with using one side of his mouth to order air raids and the other to blame domestic gun violence on Michael J. Fox.
Question #3: Were The Apaches Ever More Than A Bluff?
The Pentagon announced only two days after NATO started bombing in Kosovo its intention of introducing the fearsome Apache helicopters into the war, and the American press corps popped a major chubbie. What followed was a mixture of blustering rhetoric and bizarre footdragging that went almost totally unnoticed by the press as anything but what NATO said it was: "bad weather", "difficulties" and so on. Earlier this week, the Pentagon finally admitted the obvious: it has no intention of deploying the helicopters.
Why did almost no one call NATO's bluff? Probably because few bothered calling the world's most authoritative military publication, Jane's Defense Weekly. So we did. And here's what editor Clifford Beal said.
Jane's: When you send Apaches in, you're planning on taking territory. That decision has not been made yet to go into Kosovo. But you wouldn't just use them in search and destroy missions in Kosovo, then have them fly back into Albania. That's just not how they're used. Why have only twenty-four there? That's an insignificant number, let's be frank. The Americans have promised forty-eight? Where are the others? There's no evidence they're being moved there. The whole operation is throwing up questions after questions in the defense journal world.
There's one very simple and obvious reason why the Apaches would never be deployed. Shoulder-fired SA-18s.
Exile: How good are the SA-18s? Are they as good as the Stingers?
Jane's: They're the same class. They can be improved so that they're not fooled by anti-missile defenses.
Of all the macho hacks to indulge in Tom Clancy-like worship of the Apache's terrifying signal of a major ratcheting up of the war campaign, few have been as relentless as Douglas Hamilton, who mans the Reuters bureau in Brussels. As late as May 12th--nearly six weeks after the Apaches were allegedly being rushed to the battlefield--Hamilton filed a piece titled, "Apaches, Warthogs Aim To Score NATO Breakthrough", catching our attention for not including a single contradictory source to NATO's umptillionth claim that it was on the verge of introducing the Apaches and "turn the corner in the war." So we went on a little search and destroy mission of our own, and found him belching nervously in his Brussels office.
Exile: I'm working on an article about how the Western press is covering the war, and specifically, about the coverage of the Apache helicopters, and I saw that you wrote a piece on the Apache-
Hamilton: (proudly) Many, many times.
Exile: Just taking your Apache piece from May 12th. Did your sources outside of NATO ever say that the Apache battalion that was deployed to Albania was a credible threat?
Hamilton: (pause) Um...
Exile: The piece I'm reading here makes it seem like the Apaches are--
Hamilton: Well, they've got those multiple rocket launchers with them and those attacking missiles with a 160 kilometer range, so we're not talking about something that's just chewing out some enclave across the border.
This claim seemed so bizarre that later we called STRATFOR, an intelligence report company in Austin, Texas, and spoke to Matt Baker, a senior analyst.
Exile: We were told by the Reuters correspondent in Brussels, Douglas Hamilton, that the Apaches can fire missiles with a range of 160 kilometers, and we were wondering if you knew whether or not this was the case.
Baker: The longest-range missile on the Apaches is the Longbow Hellfire-2 missile, which has a range of eight to nine kilometers. (pause) Did he say 160 kilometers? That's huge... not at all possible.
Exile: I just spoke to the editor of Jane's Defense and he told me that it was laughable that NATO only deployed 24, or now 22, Apaches of 48 promised, and that it wasn't a credible threat, and I wanted to know what you think about that.
Hamilton: Well, I would have to defer to the editor at Jane's. I don't claim to be an expert on military matters just because I happen to wind up here covering NATO doesn't mean I know the ins and outs of military strategy. Not at all. But certainly the Apaches were promoted--it wasn't just me who promoted them, not at all.
Exile: But do you think you played a part in promoting them as a credible threat?
Hamilton: Well, I mean, the way they are seen here is as one step closer to the ground, quite frankly. I mean, without being an expert here, they're a weapon that's supposed to go with infantry. They're supposed to have infantry following up behind them, aren't they?
Exile: Right, the Apache is designed to be part of an attack structure that includes heavy artillery, multiple rocket launchers, and infantry to take territory. You indicate that the Apaches were about to be deployed--for example, in the May 12th article--and obviously they were there to try to give the impression of a credible ground threat, but when you add it all up, and the fact that there were only 22 Apaches there, shouldn't that have been in the story somewhere for balance?
Hamilton: What are you getting at? If you want to take it apart, be my guest. You don't need me to take it apart.
Exile: Why not?
Hamilton: Because I won't. Because I'm talking to people who want to use them, who still want to use them, who wanted them there a month before they came.
Exile: But isn't your job, since your reports are probably more widely disseminated than any other news organizations, to present a balanced view, and not the view of these "people"?
Hamilton: My balanced view comes out over the days. I'm not going to put balance in ten--you know, in check, slavishly put balance in every single piece so it comes out like a bloody see-saw. He-said, she-said, make-your-own-conclusion. That doesn't tell anybody anything, does it?
Welp, that pretty much sums it all up. Balanced reporting is for the birds. Making a simple call to Jane's Defense every once in awhile to cross-check what your NATO friends are telling you "doesn't tell anybody anything".
On Monday, May 17th, the Pentagon finally admitted that it was opposed to introducing the Apaches into Kosovo. It was all a bluff.
Our attempts to reach the New York Times about similar unfiltered NATO-generated Apache promo pieces didn't get us any answers about the subject at-hand, but did reveal just that much more about the maniacally suspicious, corporate attitude of people working in the media. We called night editor Brian Zittel, a news assistant maggot. What's amazing is that Zittel, a mere slave in that feudal world, instinctively puckered up Sergeant Schultz-like to defend his master's manor.
Zittel: Insofar as getting opinions about our reporting, you have to write a letter or speak to the editorial department. It's really hard for me to connect you with an editor about something like that.
Exile: But the article is about this very issue.
Zittel: About, like, press coverage you mean?
Zittel: Okay, you'll have to talk to somebody who will give you an official comment, which would be our PR department or something like that.
Exile: You mean an editor wouldn't speak to me about it?
Zittel: That's not the place to start, no.
Exile: Well, that sounds a bit strange. Our whole job as journalists and editors is to try to get people to speak. The New York Times has a policy where they won't speak to other journalists?
Zittel: I'm not saying that's a policy. I'm saying that's not where you start.
Exile: And why's that?
Zittel: Because well, first off all, you should talk to the reporter first.
So this is how youngsters grow into Douglas Hamiltons. You gotta wonder if his editor-boss took him aside afterwards, like Jimmy Conway to Henry Hill, and said, "You just learned the two most important things in life, Brian. Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut."