Media Criticism

That Darn Media


At The Weekly Standard, Thomas Joscelyn is in a tizzy over the way the "elite media" "ignores" the theory, recently revivified, that the KGB and the Bulgarian secret service were behind the attempted assassination of the pope. His chief target is The New York Times, which surprises me, since Claire Sterling advanced the KGB theory in a page-one story of nearly 6,000 words for the Times back in 1984.

Joscelyn doesn't mention that, though he does allow that after 1983 "the Times and the elite media [began] to honestly investigate" the shooting. Instead he praises Sterling for her earlier reporting in Reader's Digest, which in turn inspired an NBC documentary in 1982. (Apparently, NBC doesn't count as "elite media.")

Halfway through his article, you hit this sentence:

While the Times would give roughly equal weight to Sterling's research and the Soviet Union's formal disavowal, it would be much less neutral in its assessment of the NBC documentary that aired a month later.

It's tempting to dwell on the revelation that the Times gave "roughly equal weight" to both sides of a debate—how biased!—but let's skip ahead to the review the paper gave its rival. Its chief criticism, according to the Standard story, is that NBC offered "disappointingly scanty evidence" for its theory. Joscelyn has presumably seen the show, but he doesn't list any reasons to reject this critique. Now that we know the KGB connection was probably real, I guess we're supposed to accept on faith that every argument for it in the last two and a half decades was completely convincing.

Missing from all of this is any sense that the nature of the plot has been an open question for the last 24 years, or that reporters facing a matrix of disinformation could come to different conclusions. It's telling that Joscelyn says the Times began to "honestly investigate" the charges after 1983—that is, when it gave more space to his preferred theory. He never explains why its earlier investigations were not "honest," as opposed to not being fully accurate.

I'm not defending the Times so much as I'm attacking the sort of lazy, ideologically driven appraisals that frequently pass for media criticism these days. The KGB tale's stock has risen and fallen and risen again since 1981. Sometimes its standing changed in response to real events: When the shooter declared that he was Jesus Christ reborn, for example, his earlier confession that he was working for the Communists became somewhat less credible. Other times, political bias may have overwhelmed the facts. I'd love to read a serious history someday of how the Bulgarian theory fared in the American press. I don't think Joscelyn is the man to write it.


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  1. So it wasn’t as laid out by R.A.W. in the footnotes of “The Widow’s Son”?

    Or was that about JP1?

  2. That was about JP1. And I think that theory’s been on the rocks for a while, though I haven’t followed it lately.

  3. I’m not sure what’s the point of getting worked up about it now.

    The iron curtain is down. President Bush says Pooty-poot, ex-KGB, has a good soul.

    There may or may not be much continuity between the agencies involved then, and the agencies that exist now.

    They might as well blame it on Catherine the Great and the Ottoman empire.

  4. They might as well blame it on Catherine the Great and the Ottoman empire.

    I know of at least one poster who would blame it on Nietzsche.

  5. I know of at least one poster who would blame it on Nietzsche.

    What the hell’s happened to g. marius anyway? He hasn’t been banned, has he? (snicker)

  6. Isaac,
    Tim sent him an email with only one condition, use capital letters or go to another corner of the web. gaius marius was insulted and left in a huff.

    (Note: the comment is written tongue in cheek. I do not mean to spread vicious rumors about Tim.)

  7. Isn’t there a point where the media has to dismiss the ravings of the criminally insane as just that?

  8. David, yes.

    But if they started down that road, the D.C. press corps’ political quotes would dry up.

  9. re: Gaius Marius- my theory is that the Borg re-assimilated him.

  10. I’m starting to think GM was Gary’s sock puppet.

    Tim, can you confirm or deny?

  11. joe-

    I don’t think so. I communicated with gaius marius off the list a few times. If gm were GG, I think GG might have at some point hinted at our communication, maybe when identity issues came up or something.

    Of course, there’s no telling how far GG really went in his effort to construct alternate identities, so anything’s possible, but this one seems unlikely.

  12. The joke is on Tim. Every one of us is an alternate identity of GG. We (by “we”, I mean “I”) are just frustrated writers and like to compose elaborate dialogues. We are particularly proud of the GG/BillyRay dialogs. The smacky/Stevo Darkly banter is fun to write, too.

    The hardest part is keeping all the characters in voice, when doing those rapid bang-bang-bang posts. Getting a joe-thoreau-warren-PaulRevere’sHorse-Jennifer-warren-thoreau set of comments posted in under 2 minutes is both a creative challenge and a technical challenge.

    So now Tim knows the big secret. :p

  13. *Chuckle* I am most certainly NOT you.

    But the important thing to remember above all else is Kerry would be much worse.

    D’oh! Just confused 3 aliases again.

  14. joe,
    I don’t think so. gm disappeared before GG was banned.

    I think BillyRay is GG through the looking glass. Just as polite and inflammatory, exact opposite beliefs.

  15. Every one of us is an alternate identity of GG

    I’m not!

  16. As long as we’re talking about identities, whatever happened to Shannon Love? I always wondered if Shannon was one of Gary’s straw men. She’d say something, Gary would lecture her on how wrong she was, and she’d usually say nothing (at least in her recent appearances here).

    Which in and of itself doesn’t mean much; maybe Shannon just didn’t feel like engaging Gary. But I remember that I once asked Shannon a question and she went silent in that thread. Shannon had said several times that some of the people complaining about something or other clearly didn’t have any background in intelligence or criminal justice. So I asked (in what I thought was a non-belligerent manner) what her background was. She said nothing.

    I’m by no means convinced that Shannon and Gary were the same person, but I always wondered.

  17. “When the shooter declared that he was Jesus Christ reborn, for example, his earlier confession that he was working for the Communists became somewhat less credible.”

    How do we know that Jesus Christ doesn’t work for the Communists?

    “I’m by no means convinced that Shannon and Gary were the same person, but I always wondered.”

    Do the Reason lords know who is who by IP addresses? Maybe we can file a FOIA with them, and finally get to the bottom of this (yeah, yeah, Reason is a private entity, but we can get Congress to pass a special, emergency law).

    I think maybe some of these jokers are Reason lords themselves… hmmmmmmm?

  18. “Whatever happened to Shannon Love? I dunno, thoreau, but you may have just found Quentin Tarantino’s next project. Does Teresa Graves still have an agent?


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