FOR REALISM AND DIVERSITY IN LIBERAL JOURNALISM AND AT THE NEW YORK TIMES
Mr. Keller’s “October Surprise”
Less than two weeks before Election Day in 2004, on Monday, October 25, Mr. Keller ran a story headlined “Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq.” The article, which was 2,607 words, contended that nearly 380 tons of powerful conventional explosives were missing from one of Iraq’s former military installations. The story said the explosives disappeared “sometime” after the invasion, and led readers to believe the disappearance was recent.
The story also portrayed the event as militarily significant. The fifth paragraph intoned that “American weapons experts say their immediate concern is that the explosives could be used in major bombing attacks against American or Iraqi forces: the explosives, mainly HMX and RDX, could produce bombs strong enough to shatter airplanes or tear apart buildings.” The piece quoted a European diplomat as saying Dr. Muhammad El-Baradei, the UN’s weapons inspector on Iraq, was “extremely concerned” about the “devastating consequences” of the missing munitions. The article concluded with a dark image of a potential nuclear application:
“’The immediate danger’ of the lost stockpile, said an expert who recently led a team that searched Iraq for deadly arms, ‘is its potential use with insurgents in very small and powerful explosive devices. The other danger is that it can easily move into the terrorist web across the Middle East.’
More worrisome to the I.A.E.A. – and to some in Washington – is that HMX and RDX are used in standard nuclear weapons design. In a nuclear implosion weapon, the explosives crush a hollow sphere of uranium or plutonium into a critical mass, initiating the nuclear explosion.
A crude implosion device – like the one that the United States tested in 1945 in the New Mexican desert and then dropped on Nagasaki, Japan – needs about a ton of high explosive to crush the core and start the chain reaction.”
Mr. Keller followed “Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq” with a number of articles that carried the story and its themes forward. Over the last days of the presidential campaign he ran seven stories on the issue of the “vanishing explosives.” They are: “Iraq Explosives Become Issue In Campaign,” (October 26); “Kerry Attacks Bush Over Loss of Explosives,” (October 27); “4 Iraqis Tell of Looting At Munitions Site in ’03,” (October 28); “Video Shows GIs at Weapons Cache,” (October 29); “Facts and Questions About Lost Munitions,” (October 30); “Soldier Tells Of Destroying Some Arms,” (October 30); “Media Timing and the October Surprise,” (November 1). Former Times executive editor Howell Raines liked to refer to the driving of a story through the informational environment as “flooding the zone.”
“Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq” was noteworthy, as many Times stories are, more for what it didn’t tell readers than for what it did. The piece didn’t focus on the fact that the explosives might have vanished as much as a year and a half earlier. Further, the article didn’t place the event into its proper context. The 377 tons of explosives which the Times reported upon so breathlessly represented only a tiny fraction of the vast quantities of munitions that were unaccounted for since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government.
What “Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq” represented was a basic tactic of liberal media activism — The “October Surprise.” In “October Surprise” a newspaper prints a negative piece about a non-liberal candidate very late in the campaign season. The piece has the effect of rallying voters against the candidate, who does not have the time to respond effectively. The “Missing Munitions” story was originally scheduled to be released the weekend before Election Day by the CBS program 60 Minutes. Other examples of “October Surprises” by the elite media in support of liberal Democratic candidates include the New York Times story in 2000 about a 25-year-old drunk driving charge against George Bush and John Carroll’s famous Los Angeles Times’ rehashing of old sexual harassment charges against Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. The “October Surprise” tactic originated in the activist playbook as the “Dirty Tricks Thursday” ploy; the Thursday before an election is the most propitious time to release a negative piece on an opponent.
Individuals can insulate themselves against the “October Surprise”/”Dirty Tricks Thursday” ploy by consulting multiple sources for their news. “Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq” was balanced, for example, by “Munitions Issue Dwarfs the Big Picture,” in The Washington Post on October 29, 2004. The Post article includes a quote by Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, saying: “There is something truly absurd about focusing on 377 tons of rather ordinary explosives, regardless of what actually happened at al Qaqaa. The munitions at al Qaqaa were at most around 0.06 percent of the total.”