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June 14, 2003
Following the Pack

In a story about Hillary Clinton's NYC book-signing last week, a New York Times reporter quoted the first person standing in line at the event, one Greg Packer.

A day later, fearless Lexis-Nexis subscriber Ann Coulter, aka The Golden Geyser of Truth, provided more information about Packer:

Another average individual eager to get Hillary's book was Greg Packer, who was the centerpiece of the New York Times' "man on the street" interview about Hillary-mania. After being first in line for an autographed book at the Fifth Avenue Barnes & Noble, Packer gushed to the Times: "I'm a big fan of Hillary and Bill's. I want to change her mind about running for president. I want to be part of her campaign." It was easy for the Times to spell Packer's name right because he is apparently the entire media's designated "man on the street" for all articles ever written. He has appeared in news stories more than 100 times as a random member of the public.

While Coulter loves to wear extremely short skirts, she's generally careful to cover her ass too, and here she does a fine job of it, throwing in the phrase "the entire media" to make it clear that it's not just the New York Times that has quoted Packer in the past.

And yet because the New York Times is the only publication that matters, even though it doesn't matter anymore, it's the only one that the Golden Geyser of Truth bothered to cite by name.

Nonetheless, there were actually many other media outlets interviewing Packer that day - including Newsday, USA Today, the Associated Press, and MSNBC.

Here, for example, is a transcript of MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield reporting on the Clinton book-signing:

So, what would drive somebody to spend a very, very long time in line waiting for a simple signature on a simple book? I asked a guy named Greg Packer that very question. Have a listen.


BANFIELD: When did you come here to get this autograph?

GREG PACKER, BOUGHT CLINTON BOOK: Nine o'clock last night.

BANFIELD: You slept here?

PACKER: And I slept here, yes.

BANFIELD: Is it worth it?

PACKER: It is absolutely worth it.


In subsequent coverage of Packer, however, pundits rushing to get sloppy seconds on Coulter's revelation focused only on the Times.

"Does Greg Packer actually exist?" queried enterprising question-asker Mickey Kaus. "Is he related to Allan Smithee? ...Does he know Baird Jones? ...Will he soon turn up in Iraq talking to Col. Tim Madere?"

And then when Kaus' tireless grilling apparently paid off in an email confirmation of Packer's existence, Kaus decided to ramp up his interrogation: "But that begs the question of why the NYT would write about this semi-professional line-stander and quote machine as if he were a typical man on the street."

At, a story credited to "Carl Limbacher and Staff" exclaimed that "when the New York Times needs to find a man in the street to interview they never have to look very far - they have one on tap suitable for every occasion."

At The Agitator, Radley Balko posted the same piece that appears at (Balko doesn't link or cite a source for his post.)

Apparently echoing either or Balko, blogger Greg Ransom declared Packer "the New York Times go-to 'man on the street.'" (Coulter, remember, called Packer "the entire media's" man on the street.)

And of course Glenn Reynolds got in on the action too, first posting a Times-tweaking email that ostensibly came from Packer, then equating Packer (a real person with no apparent connection to the Times or any other publication) to David Manning (a fictional journalist created by Sony's marketing department to hype Sony movies via fake print ad testimonials).

A search query of "Greg Packer" at the New York Times online archives, which go back to January 1996, yields a list of six stories.

A search query of "Greg Packer" at the New York Post online archives, which go back to August 1998, yields a list of fourteen stories.

I haven't retrieved all of these articles to determine if they all actually cite the Greg Packer in question, because that would cost a lot of money, but Clay Walters, a commenter at Radley Balko's site, cites similar numbers, saying that the New York Times has "used Packer as a interviewee three times since 2001" and that the "New York Post has used him 12 times since 1998."

So why did pundits like Kaus and Reynolds focus only on the New York Times, while ignoring the Packer-related coverage of outlets like, say, MSNBC?

Well, both Kaus and Reynolds have professional connections to MSNBC, of course. Kaus types for Slate, which is owned by MSNBC co-owner Microsoft, and Reynolds types for

But I don't think that's why they're letting MSNBC off easy. As I've said in the past, Glenn Reynolds' primary virtue is his editorial independence, and I would not be surprised if he eventually takes his benefactor to task for its coverage of Packer, perhaps even in his next MSNBC column...

But what about all the other outlets - the NY Post, USA Today, the AP, etc. - that quoted Packer too?

It's true that the Times was once the "paper of record," and as such, was held to higher standards than other media outlets. But now that the nation's press critics have outed the once-esteemed paper as nothing more than a regional rag saddled with credibility issues, why should we judge it more harshly than its professional counterparts? Or more accurately, why should we judge those counterparts more leniently? The soft bigotry of low expectations is just as hurtful to media outlets as it is to individuals, and it's time that champions of truth and accuracy like Coulter, Kaus, and Reynolds started squirting their tough love on more than just the Good Gray Lady.

UPDATE: The WSJ has a nice piece on Packer. Lacking the free reign that allowed bloggers Kaus and Reynolds to turn Packer's shenanigans into a boring blurt of keyjerk Times-bashing, WSJ reporter Matthew Rose was forced to present an accurate, interesting story. Advantage: Big Media!

Posted by Greg Beato at 11:53 AM
June 08, 2003
The Children's Crusade

I'm pretty sure that very few conventional thinkers believe that because murder is a terrible crime, other lesser offenses don't really matter. And yet this is the perspective we must adopt now in the wake of our failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Cursed with a stiffly logical mind, I've been slow to fully embrace this notion - but luckily Andrew Sullivan, William Safire, and various other rhetorical contortionists are here to provide us less limber folks with the necessary instruction.

How can overstating our specific knowledge about Iraq's WMDs be a transgression of any kind, they query with righteous thunder and the wrenching pathos of sad-eyed kittens, since toppling Saddam's regime means he can no longer keep killing all those children he killed in 1991, when despite George Bush's spirited pep talk thousands of freedom-hating Shi'ites chose death by helicopter over democracy?

Granted, such massive ordnance air blasts don't immediately decimate all pockets of resistance. For one thing, even though there must be some argument for pre-emptively eliminating potential terrorists on Iraq's dinar, I have yet to come across any commentators who've said that they're disappointed that Saddam and his regime no longer have the power to kill people at will.

There's also the question of candor: if the primary objective all along was humanitarian intervention, why so much talk about WMDs? I know we Americans are easily confused - a recent NY Times/CBS News poll revealed that 43% of the public believes that the Dixie Chicks were "personally involved" in the 9/11 attacks. So perhaps the Bush Administration felt that average Americans wouldn't easily grasp that huge tax cuts were underwriting an affirmative action initiative of almost Johnsonian magnitude: all in all, national security probably seemed like an easier sell.

But if that were true, wouldn't it have been enough to simply stick to the idea that Iraq was in violation of Resolution 1441, that it had failed to adequately account for the whereabouts of WMDs that had once been under its care, thus rationalizing suspicions that it might still have WMDs or at least the capabilities to produce them?

Instead, the Bush Administration and its allies apparently decided that the issue needed a more dramatic spin.

On September 19th, 2002, Donald Rumsfeld told Congress that Iraq had "amassed large, clandestine stockpiles of chemical weapons, including VX, sarin and mustard gas."

A few days later, Tony Blair insisted that Iraq possessed WMDs that it was capable of deploying on 45 minutes' notice.

In the months leading up to the war, President Bush made it clear that it wasn't a question of whether Iraq might have WMDs, or that it sure wished it could buy some from some underhanded turncoat like France or Russia. "[Saddam] has weapons of mass destruction," Bush declared over and over, with an almost Furby-like capacity for staying on-message.

More than a week into combat, on March 30th, 2003, Donald Rumsfeld was still insisting that the WMDs were definitely there, somewhere, and that the U.S. was on the verge of finding them: "We know where (the WMD) are," he said in a TV interview. "They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat."

And, finally, on May 4th, well after the main fighting in Iraq had subsided, Colin Powell announced that he was "absolutely sure that there are weapons of mass destruction there and the evidence will be forthcoming."

Over a month later, we're still waiting. I haven't given up hope yet, because after all, Iraq did once possess WMDs. And while Saddam was complying with the U.N. to some degree, allowing inspections, submitting reports, and destroying Scuds, he certainly could have been more cooperative. So perhaps some botulin or anthrax may eventually turn up somewhere.

Still, does that vague possibility make it any easier to reconcile the absolute certainty with which the Bush Administration insisted that Iraq's current stockpiles of WMDs posed such a threat to our national security that we had to go to war as soon as possible?

Deliberately overstating our certainty regarding Iraq's WMDs isn't the worst lie a president could tell his constituents, no doubt, but if that's what Bush did, then he would still be guilty of lying. At first then, it didn't seem entirely unreasonable to me that our press might investigate this possibility.

As it turns out, however, my error was twofold. First, I was thinking in unrealistically absolutist terms, almost like an Islamist killer. A lie isn't always damning in and of itself, I ultimately realized: there is context to consider. For example, when President Clinton continued to deploy his weapon of crass seduction in the Oval Office, even after we'd imposed informal sanctions against it, pundits like Sullivan and Safire let Clinton's dissembling about his behavior pass without comment, because they realized that extra-marital cigar-fucking was ultimately no great threat to our nation's fate.

Second, I was making the (possibly racist) mistake of holding President Bush to a higher standard of conduct than Saddam Hussein. In my defense, the U.S. does afford itself the luxury of policies like anticipatory self-defense precisely because we assume that our leaders act with more honor and responsibility than evil dictators. But as so many pundits have argued with such convincing conviction lately, there's no room for such trivial distinctions in a world where monstrous tyrants like Saddam Hussein are free to deprive innocent children of their right to play with unexploded munitions and explore the mysteries of radiation sickness.

In the end, then, it doesn't really matter if Iraq's WMDs never become any more clear or any more present than Jimmy Hoffa or DB Cooper. Nor does it matter if the Bush Administration hyped Iraq's WMD status with an enthusiasm only nominally tethered to reality. What matters is that Saddam Hussein was evil incarnate, worse than Hitler, worse than Satan, and almost as bad as Hillary Clinton. And President Bush? His only "crime" is loving thousands of Iraqi children (and possibly thousands of Iranian children too, depending on how that situation plays out). Convict him if you want on that, but convict me too.

Posted by Greg Beato at 09:00 PM