Was Journalism Murdered?

Revisiting the Wellstone Story

By Michael I. Niman ArtVoice 12/26/02


Apparently, 'conspiracy stuff' is
now shorthand for unspeakable truth

- Gore Vidal, The [ London ] Observer, 10/27/02

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.

Accident Theorists

Wellstone’s plane crashed as it approached a Northern Minnesota regional airport on October 25th.  According to reports in the mainstream media, the circumstances surrounding the crash were cut and dry.  There was either bad visibility or “no” visibility.  There was icing on the plane’s wings.  The plane was caught in a wicked snowstorm.  For the mainstream media, there was an immediate stated consensus: the crash was an accident.  From the moment the plane went down, every major media outlet in the country touted this accident theory as an uncontested conclusion.

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 Washington .  These deaths are almost certainly linked only by the sheerest of coincidences, but it’s coincidences like these that make people nervous and undermine their confidence in democratic institutions.  What I did not address is the fact that history has shown that liberal and left leaning politicians are far more likely to be assassinated as well, and that assassinations such as the killing of Robert Kennedy may very well have changed the course of history.

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 Democratic Party.

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 Know

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 Minnesota ’s North Country .  It had two independent de-icing systems, both of which were functional at take-off.  During the flight, Wellstone’s two pilots reported no problems with de-icing or any other system on the plane. The only threat of icing that day was reported at 9,000 feet.  Wellstone’s plane, according to air traffic control records ignored by the press, had already descended to 5,000 feet and was experiencing no problems when the pilots received clearance to land at 10:18 AM , fully eight minutes after passing through the ice clouds.  Three smaller lighter duty planes had previously passed though the same layer of light ice clouds and landed ice-free in the hour preceding the Wellstone crash. 

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 Texas .  The Wellstone crash accounts for half of all fatalities occurring in A-100s since the plane was introduced in 1975.

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. 

Not 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.

Loony Me

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 U.S. government.”  For the record, I never made such an allegation, and even in the unlikely event that Wellstone turns out to have been murdered, I certainly don’t see this in any way as a government sanctioned killing.  Hence, Sullivan’s characterization of my story grossly misrepresented what I actually wrote. 

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.”

Threat from Jerusalem

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 the Niagara bridge.”  His column was co-published in The Jerusalem Post, creating the bizarre specter of Steyn, a Canadian expatriate, writing for an Israeli publication, telling me to leave my county because I’m exercising my right as an American journalist to write for a free press. Steyn and his editors display an arrogance that knows no bounds.

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.” 

Conspiracy Theories

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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