the Wellstone Story
By Michael I. Niman ArtVoice
'conspiracy stuff' is
now shorthand for unspeakable truth”
- Gore Vidal, The
The October crash that killed Senator Paul Wellstone claimed more than the lives of the Senator and his entourage. And it did more than short circuit a progressive political movement. For many of us, the crash proved to be a final blow to the already crippled institution of American journalism.
Wellstone’s plane crashed as it approached a
I took a different approach.
In my AlterNet article, published two days after the crash, I listed all
of the members of the U.S. Congress and Senate who died in plane crashes since
World War II. Almost every one of
these crashes resulted in the death of a politician who in one way or another
posed a threat to the established powers in
Hence, it’s no surprise that when news broke of
Wellstone’s “accident,” many people were skeptical.
Looking at the man, and the moment, their skepticism is understandable.
Wellstone was the most vocal opponent of the Democratic Leadership
Committee’s right-leaning pro-corporate political ideology, as well as the
most outspoken Senate opponent of the Bush administration.
Wellstone was also powerful in traditional ways: he was the top
fundraiser in the Senate, pulling in the bulk of his donations not from industry
or corporate PACs, but from individual donors.
He constructed a populist base unrivaled in the Senate.
With the Democrats emerging rudderless and in disarray after the recent
election, Wellstone, if he were alive, would have almost certainly emerged as a
leader – one capable of infusing a new populist spirit into the moribund
I listed the various political deaths in my column as a means to explain why normal average Americans were suddenly thinking the unthinkable – questioning the accident theory. To put their minds, and admittedly, my mind as well, at ease, I called for an independent international investigation into the plane crash, writing: “For our government to maintain its credibility at this time, we need an open and accountable international investigation into the death of Paul Wellstone. Hopefully we will find out, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that this was indeed an untimely accident. For the sake of our country, we need to know this.” To date, we haven’t gotten this.
What we have learned since the crash, is that contrary to some early reports, weather was not a factor. According to weather service reports available to any journalist, there was no significant wind at the time of the crash. It was not snowing. The freezing rain reported earlier in the day had stopped by the time of the crash. Visibility was at three miles in light drizzle and mist.
Icing, which many media outlets heralded early on as the
probable cause of the crash, was also not a factor.
The commercial Beechcraft King Air A-100 that Wellstone was flying on is
a stalwart of northern aviation, designed to fly year round in challenging
environments such as
Pilot error is also extremely unlikely.
The plane carried two certified commercial pilots, the senior of which,
Captain Richard Conry, according to the Federal Aviation Administration,
received his air transport pilot rating in 1989.
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, this is the highest
rating such a commercial pilot can get. Both pilots were alive at the time of
the crash. Happenstance mechanical
problems are also highly unlikely. The
King Air A-100 has one of the industry’s best safety records.
It is the plane of choice for many corporate executives and politicians
such as George W. Bush, who used one as governor of
The crash is currently being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which arguably, has the most sophisticated forensic aviation technology in the world. Critics point out, however, that the federal agency is hardly an independent body. NTSB Acting Chair Carol Carmody, for example, formally worked for the CIA. Hence, the agency’s December 17th progress report, which pointed to icing as the most probable cause for the crash, has been contested by skeptics. It’s clear that no matter what the NTSB determines, this investigation will not bring the closure that’s would be possible with the independent investigation that I asked for in my October 27th column. This request was not unreasonable, especially in light of recent information shedding doubt on the initial accident theory.
a Brave Person
Wellstone died on a Friday. I wrote my story on Saturday. I sent it to AlterNet on Sunday. They ran it on Monday. I knew something was wrong on Monday afternoon when I started getting email messages, most notably from journalists and journalism professors thanking me for writing my Wellstone piece. The most disturbing messages thanked me for my “courage.”
This was upsetting, since I’m not really a brave person. And I certainly didn’t intend to do anything “courageous.” So, if indeed I did do something courageous, it must have been more the result of stupidity than valor.
Put simply, when I wrote my Wellstone piece, I foolishly assumed hundreds of other columnists were hunkering down over their keyboards and writing similar columns. We now know they weren’t. Judging by the messages I’ve received, it’s not because they didn’t have the same feelings. They just knew better than to write their concerns down. I, by contrast, was still naively clinging to quaint antiquated notions of a free press. So I lunged out of the starting gate, only to find myself running solo on a muddy track under a threatening sky.
On Tuesday the attacks came.
Syndicated conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan led the charge, terming
my call for an independent investigation “looney tunes” [sic.].
A call for an investigation, however, really isn’t such a radical
departure from conventional wisdom. To
properly vilify me, Sullivan needed to credit me with a more outrageous
statement, hence he cooked up this line: “Niman seems to believe that
Wellstone might have been murdered by the
Once painting me as a wacko, Sullivan went on to promote a weird sort of conspiracy theory of his own, alluding to me being part of some sort of Academic Cabal, since my book, “People of the Rainbow: A Nomadic Utopia,” he writes, “has been respectively reviewed by scholars at Williams College and the University of Kansas.”
Chicago Sun Times columnist Mark Steyn took over
where Sullivan left off. Steyn
skips over the point of my article, the call for an investigation, and instead
falsely credits me with reporting that “Wellstone was killed by ‘government
gangsters.’” In all likelihood,
he never read my column, but instead based his misinformation on Sullivan’s
deceitful column. Steyn then went on
threaten my life, writing, “you have, I figure, about 20 minutes to get across
Steyn and Sullivan seem to have gotten the ball rolling, instigating a wave of petit harassment, as my email account quickly filled to capacity with hate mail. My favorite letter came from a University Chaplin and Rector of a Mid-Western Anglican Church, who termed my writing “seditious,” while calling me “a disturbingly ignorant moron” and “a typical anti-intellectual academic wank.” These are odd words indeed for a Rector.
Other writers incorrectly assumed I was a liberal Democrat
(I’m actually a Green), writing that “your own party” must have “bumped
Wellstone off.” They presented
various theories on why the Democrats would want Wellstone dead, peppering their
rhetoric by calling me a “mind-numbed liberal robot,” “a bed wetting
liberal,” “a psycho-liberal” a “liberal who has sex with an animal,”
“one sick twisted liberal scum” and so on.
I’d think, however, that in essence, they too would support an
independent inquiry, since it is them, and not I, who seems to have a theory
about who might have killed Paul Wellstone.
Still, most of their letters ended with some variation of threatening
rhetoric such as this gem: “Your [sic.] are not fit to teach students.
Hope the power [sic.] that be have [sic.] the decency to kick you’re
[sic.] twisted butt out door.”
Interestingly enough, criticism also flowed in from bona-fide liberal quarters, albeit more articulate. John Moyers, editor of TomPaine.com, termed my piece “irresponsible rumormongering,” arguing that “it gives liberal [ouch] opinion a bad name” with “outrageous speculation,” while the headline it ran under, “Was Paul Wellstone Murdered?” was “hyperprovocative.”
I intended for the headline to be provocative. I wrote the initial story to provoke discussion. Paul Wellstone was well placed to change the direction of the Democratic Party, and hence, American politics. We deserve a detailed explanation concerning his sudden disappearance. Theories blaming the crash on icing, geese or wind shears don’t work – not with this plane, this flight crew and the weather system in place that day. All they do is illustrate that as of yet, there is no clear indication why Wellstone’s plane crashed, and why the Senator is dead. It is clear that we need a comprehensive independent investigation so that Wellstone can properly be laid to rest.
Calling for this investigation has provoked a chilling reaction – one that many journalists sought to avoid by moving on to other stories. The self-censorship, however, is understandable. Frankly put, the press in this country is no longer in the business of challenging conventional thought and stirring up questions. Few publishers are willing to go out on a limb with an unpopular story. And most journalists know better than to write such a story. This is the new political reality of our nation.
In my article, I wrote, “Anyone familiar with my work knows I’m certainly not a conspiracy theorist.” Writing this line was a knee-jerk rhetorical move that, in retrospect, I now regret. All pre-meditated crimes result from conspiracies. Investigative journalism, like police work, can only be done by conspiracy theorists. Responsible journalists should chase down theories, yet refrain from presenting them as fact until there is evidence. The same standard should hold true for accident theorists. Since there is, at present, no evidence demonstrating any discernable cause of the Wellstone crash, it is premature to term it an accident. Headlines such as “Wellstone dies in plane crash,” “Was Wellstone Murdered?” and “Was Wellstone crash an accident?” are all valid, since they either state what we know, or pose the unknown as a question. Headlines reading, “Wellstone murdered,” or “Wellstone dies in accident,” by comparison, are both equally premature. Yet, in the current conventional wisdom of American journalism, the “Accident” scenario is accepted as unquestioned truth, while posing any question to the contrary is dismissed as “conspiracy stuff,” and hence, off limits to an increasingly censored press corps. American journalism certainly is in trouble.
Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous local and national
columns, including “Was Paul Wellstone Murdered?” are archived at http://mediastudy.com.
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