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Left Field

The Bush Beat, Ju?rez Body Count & the Poop on Koop
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It’s not every day that The National Enquirer prints an angry vindication of character. But that’s the sort of year George W. Bush has had. Readers taking the bait on the cover, which promises a “Texas woman’s wild sexy tale,” and Bush “in adultery scandal” find GWB cleared in the pages of the nation’s most widely read trash tab. There’s even a stern lecture about responsibility in reporting.

The story Enquirer writer David Wright reported in the January 4 issue doesn’t begin with a tale told by “stunning playboy model,” Tammy Phillips, but with the unlikely coupling of University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato and Watergate conspirator turned talk show host G. Gordon Liddy. Both attack Phillips. “This is a classic dirty trick,” said Sabato, author of Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics. “George W. can expect more spurious allegations like this before the campaign is over,” concluded Liddy.

What’s her story? Her uncle, a Republican lobbyist from Atlanta, introduced Tammy to the Governor in Midland in early December of 1997. “I was wearing a tiny miniskirt – and it was instant combustion.” The combustion led to several encounters with the Governor, Phillips said.

The Enquirer didn’t buy it.

Reporter David Wright told Left Field he traveled to Dallas, where he interviewed Phillips over a three-day period. “She was credible for a while … We do check things out in minute detail. We spent some time on this. We spent a lot of time tracking down her claims, talking to family members, who suggested that her stories were untrue,” Phillips said in an interview.

“Tammy is armed with days, dates and location where George W. in fact appeared and where she claims she had sex with him,” Wright writes in the Enquirer. “It gives her story the air of credibility. But our investigation discovered that while her story may have the appearance of truth, it’s false – although Tammy vehemently defends it.”

Why did they run it? In the end, Wright describes the story in the terms of public service journalism. “We did it to point out that this is the sort of thing that is likely to happen in the campaign,” he said. Coming, as we do, from a long tradition of public service journalism, Left Field is moved to wonder whether that goal might have been accomplished without putting the governor’s mug on the cover with a half-naked bimbo. As the old blues line about adultery goes, “That’s the kind of help you don’t need.”

Lost in the Rain in Juárez

What’s the difference between nine and 400?

About sixty-five F.B.I. agents plus 100 reporters (with parachutes).

Just in case you missed the apologetic retractions (there weren’t any), the big Drug War Hysteria Story of 1999 — hundreds of bodies buried outside Ciudad Juárez — fizzled into virtual nothingness by the new year. In early December, newspapers and televisions all over the globe broadcast sensationalized images of the “killing fields” of Juárez, where the sixty-five U.S. agents joined several hundred Mexican police in “investigating” what was described as an F.B.I. informant’s tip that “as many as 100″ victims of drug traffickers had been buried on ranches near Juárez, over the last several years. By early January, at four supposed “mass gravesites” only nine bodies had been recovered, and operations had been suspended “for the holidays.”

If you didn’t know that, don’t be embarrassed. The same reporters (as many as 100 in the first few days) who had been only too eager to inflate the early body-count were long gone by the time it became obvious that the story had collapsed. In a December 29 followup feature that opened with a sensationalized re-telling of a two-year-old story about an apparently drug-related Juárez kidnapping, The New York Times buried the real news in the eighth paragraph: “So far, remains of nine bodies have been unearthed, a modest but not insignificant achievement in what is one of the largest law enforcement operations between the two countries.” “Modest but not insignificant?” How about “pitiful and shamelessly exaggerated?”

A month earlier, reporters from all over had eagerly swallowed the F.B.I.’s vague references to “hundreds” of bodies buried by the Mexican drug cartels, amplified by a published list of the city’s supposed “disappeared” since 1993 — said to number 196, “including,” reporters invariably added, “twenty-two Americans.” Although face-saving investigators now say their “informant” never cited a number, on November 30 the Los Angeles Times credulously reported that “one senior U.S. law enforcement official in Washington said investigators believe that the graves contain between 100 and 300 bodies.” On NBC, Geraldo Rivera interviewed his “pals” in law enforcement (ex-agents and academic hangers-on, who also turned up on NPR with similar tales), who claimed knowledge of “hundreds” of bodies buried in gravesites “all along the border,” while Rivera’s colleague Fred Francis proclaimed ominously, “We’re talking about as many as 400.” “Well, Geraldo,” intoned Francis, “never before has such a horror story unfolded in Mexico, in the Chihuahuan Desert. Never before so many bodies expected.” On “Good Morning America,” Mike von Fremd reported unquestioningly, “The F.B.I. says this will be the biggest forensic dig since mass graves were uncovered in Kosovo.”

Print journalists were equally gullible. “The F.B.I. called the scale of the killing represented by the graves unprecedented, even by the infamous standards of the Mexican cartels,” solemnly repeated the Times of London. “Mark Kleiman, director of the Drug Policy Analysis Programme at the University of California, Los Angeles, said: ‘I can’t think, in the entire history of the illicit drug business, of anything comparable.’”

Leaving Professor Kleiman to his feverish thoughts, Left Field has more than a little sympathy for those Juarenses led to believe by the F.B.I. and Mexican authorities that hundreds of their fellow citizens (and never forget, twenty-two Americans) might be buried on the outskirts of town. What appears to have happened is that U.S. agents, convinced by a Mexican informant that “some” bodies might be buried on ranches outside Juárez, wanted an excuse to get access by twisting the arms of the Mexican government. Only a handful of potential corpses wouldn’t do; they persuaded Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuellar that his investigators would certainly be overwhelmed by the hundreds of bodies underground, and that only U.S. equipment, organization, and expertise — of the sort that dug up Kosovo — could possibly deal with the crisis.

By mid-December, Madrazo was under persistent criticism that he had sacrificed Mexican sovereignty to U.S. pressure, the mayor of Juárez was demanding that everybody (including Bill Clinton) stop referring to the “Juárez drug cartel,” U.S. and Mexican officials were blaming each other for the “leaks” and “exaggerations,” and the F.B.I. was feeding reporters excuses disguised as new information. Geraldo Rivera was nowhere to be found.

As for the rest of the national and international press corps (called “parachute journalists” by the locals who have to pick up after them) — by then they couldn’t be bothered with missing bodies. They’ve gotten a new assignment, and are happily in search of hundreds of Algerian terrorists.

Solicitor General

In the eighties, when he became the first establishment figure to point out the turd in the tobacco industry punchbowl (i.e. that millions of people were being killed by cigarettes), Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s bearded mug became as familiar as Aunt Jemima or the Quaker Oats Quaker. But Koop is no Ralph Nader. “America’s family doctor,” as he still likes to call himself, lately seems more like America’s used car salesman. As The New York Times has reported, Koop’s latest enterprise, an Austin-based on-line pharmacy website called “drkoop.com,” has been hounded by criticism from medical ethicists and consumer advocates (including several of his former fans). The biggest of a growing number of online pharmacy services, the site allows patients to fill their prescriptions through the Internet, purchase health products advertised there, and read up on health-related news and opinion. The site has been faulted for inadequately distinguishing between advertising and content, failing to disclose the website’s commercial sponsors, and creating an unsavory fiscal arrangement whereby Koop himself received a kickback on health products sold through the site.

“I cannot be bought,” Koop told the Times. “I am an icon, and I have a reputation for honesty and integrity, and let the chips fall where they may.” Some of the chips must have landed a little to close to the icon, because the company took corrective action almost immediately after (or in some cases before) the article was published — including noting which companies were sponsors and canning the kickback scheme altogether.

One thing drkoop.com hasn’t changed, however, is its close relationship with the American Council on Science and Health, an ostensibly independent scientific organization that is widely regarded as a corporate front-group. Since last spring, the A.C.S.H. has enjoyed special prominence on the site as a content provider. The Council’s editorials regularly bash food activists (or “terrorists”) and other environmentalists, frequently ridiculing their brand of “junk science.” Nowhere does the site reveal the Council’s underwriters, which, according to the magazine PR Watch, have included food giants like Archer Daniels Midland, Frito-Lay, and Coca-Cola; oil and chemical companies like Exxon, duPont, and Dow Chemical; bioengineering firms like Monsanto; and drug companies like Merck Pharmaceuticals and Bristol-Myers Squibb. The group also takes money from unabashed industry flaks like American Meat Institute, National Soft Drink Association, and National Agricultural Chemicals Association. Not surprisingly, a survey of the Council’s recent drkoop.com editorials suggests a rather corporate flavor; typical examples include “Genetically Modified, Unwarranted Fear,” and “To Keep Meat Safe — Irradiate!,” two pieces that must have warmed the hearts of the directors at Monsanto and the American Meat Institute, respectively. Another piece entitled “Colorado Board of Education Practices Medicine — Poorly,” excoriated the board for its decision to discourage teachers from recommending that parents put their kids on psychoactive drugs like Ritalin, which many educators and therapists feel is being overprescribed (between three and six million kids currently take the drug to treat Attention Deficit Disorder).

“If we ever determine that they’re doing a story that is compromised by their source of funding, we won’t print it,” drkoop.com Chief Operating Officer Dennis Upah told Left Field, when we asked about drkoop’s connection to the American Council on Science and Health. Thus far, Upah says, that has not happened. “I think if you look at the credentials of the scientists on their board, I think you would have a hard time finding anyone that would say that those scientists would be willing to sell their objectivity and shill for anyone.” For that purpose, presumably, the Council relies on board member Lorraine Thelian, of Ketchum Public Communications (one of the largest PR firms in the country, with dozens of corporate clients). In fact, the Council does no actual research of its own, but specializes instead in orchestrating media assaults on scientists and activists who take positions contrary to the Council’s corporate interests. Upah contends that the Council takes as many swipes at industry as it does at activists. The Council’s website indicates otherwise: a comprehensive list of press releases from the last ten years reads like, well, a public relations firm dossier, debunking everything from global warming to the hysterical notion that junk food is bad for you. The one exception is tobacco. As PR Watch has reported, A.C.S.H.’s executive director Elizabeth Whelan was one of the first conservatives to jump on board with Koop when he went after tobacco in the eighties. The two cemented a lasting friendship doing battle against the cigarette villains. According to Dennis Upah, it’s not going to end anytime soon, no matter what the food terrorists at The New York Times say.

The Council’s “Tackling Tobacco” project, in case our readers were wondering, is funded by Nicorette gum.