How a Hit Piece Happens
Originally published at Daily Censored by Kristina Borjesson on 12/11/13
It began with an email on October 24, 2013 to Tom Stalcup, Ph.D., Co-Producer and Senior Science Advisor for the new documentary, “TWA Flight 800.” New York Magazine intern Claire McCartney wrote that editor Geoffrey Gray wanted to talk to Stalcup and to “get in contact” with Kristina Borjesson, the film’s Producer/Director.
In his first phone conversation with Stalcup, Gray jokingly identified himself as being with the National Transportation Safety Board. He congratulated Stalcup on his success and suggested he write a book. Stalcup asked if Gray had seen the documentary. Gray hadn’t, but promised to talk again after watching it.
Gray portrayed himself as an honest investigative journalist, saying that investigations like Stalcup’s into TWA 800 are his life and that he has conducted many of them and knows what it’s like. He gave Stalcup the impression that he was working on a serious article for New York Magazine. Stalcup provided Gray with verified, factual information, free of any speculation or theorizing.
When Gray called film director Borjesson, she asked Gray about the context of his article so that she could better answer his questions. Gray said it was for an issue on conspiracy theories. Borjesson responded that she and her investigative team wanted nothing to do with that because the first-hand sources (members of the original official investigation who had actually handled the wreckage and evidence), hard forensic evidence and eyewitnesses presented in the “TWA Flight 800” documentary had nothing to do with conspiracy theories and didn’t belong in that issue. Borjesson added that if New York Magazine ever wanted to do an issue on whistleblowers, that that would be more appropriate, because six former members of the original investigation who appear in the documentary show how the investigation was corrupted and present hard forensic evidence indicating what happened to the airplane. Among these six whistleblowers are Hank Hughes, retired senior aviation accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board who reconstructed TWA 800’s interior; Robert Young, TWA’s lead investigator on the Flight 800 investigation, Jim Speer, the Air Line Pilots Association investigator, and Colonel Dennis Shanahan, M.D., forensic medical consultant on the investigation for the National Transportation Safety Board.
Unsettled by Borjesson’s exchange with Gray about New York Magazine’s conspiracy theory issue, Stalcup continued talking to Gray in an attempt to prevent Gray from framing him and the TWA 800 investigative team’s work within a conspiracy theory context in Gray’s upcoming article. After more email exchanges and after Gray had said that he had watched the documentary, Stalcup agreed to another phone interview. Stalcup thought the interview went well, particularly given the answer Gray gave him when he asked Gray directly about the conspiracy label:
Stalcup: “Kristina is concerned that this may be lumped in a conspiracy bin, and….I just want to make sure that’s not what’s going to happen with this article.”
Gray: “No, we’re taking the article seriously. I’m a serious journalist…and have [been doing]…this same kind of whistleblower stories for over ten years…and I’m taking it seriously…trying to promote your hard work.”
In his follow-up conversation with Borjesson, Gray seemed sympathetic to her argument that the long years of scientific research resulting in “TWA Flight 800,” a documentary featuring an investigative team of first hand sources and the government’s own experts presenting hard forensic evidence, did not belong in a conspiracy theory issue of the magazine. He understood her concerns, Gray said, because he too, was an investigative journalist. Gray said he had been a producer on Lifetime’s “Unsolved Mysteries,” a series featuring programs on Bigfoot, lost treasure and wanted criminals.
On October 28, 2013, Borjesson sent an email to Gray with the subject line: “re November NY Magazine/50th Anniversary of Kennedy Assassination Issue.” “Geoff,” she wrote, “if you’re including the TWA story and our investigative team’s work on it in an issue pegged to this, then shame on you.”
Three weeks later, the issue came out. In it, Geoffrey Gray had reduced fifteen grueling years of rigorous scientific research and investigative reporting on TWA Flight 800 to three inaccurate, inane paragraphs surrounded by headlines like “We Are ‘Sheeple’ and Our Overlords Lizard Aliens.”
Former Newsweek reporter, Consortium News founder and investigative reporter Robert Parry defines a hit piece as “an article that sets aside fairness and slants and/or ignores the facts to make someone or something look bad. It’s a form of propaganda.”
Hit Piece Element One: Killing Credibility Via Context
On November 17, 2013, Gray’s article appeared in New York Magazine’s “50 Years of Conspiracy Theories” section. Prefacing the magazine’s conspiracy theory reportage on page 31 is Zohar Lazar’s lurid red, white, and blue ink pen illustration featuring, among other things, an airplane trailed by three missiles flying under a canopy of alien spaceships. “Flight 800” and “Naval Coverup” are written around the blue plane, which is semi-obscured by red scribbles. The word “Coverup” is underlined several times. “The Truly PARANOID [the biggest word in the headline, highlighted in red] Style in American Politics,” positioned to the right of Lazar’s illustration, is the first of a series of sensational headlines in this section. In New York Magazine’s web issue, under the yellow-highlighted title “More Greatest Hits of Out-There Theories,” “TWA Flight 800 Was Hit by a Missile” is listed above “Stephen King Killed John Lennon.” These images and headlines graphically convey the message that a missile causing the demise of TWA Flight 800 is a far-fetched scenario entertained by paranoid conspiracy theorists.
The conspiracy theory section of New York Magazine’s web issue can be seen here: http://nym.ag/18Wkyvm
When Stalcup read the headlines, he immediately emailed Gray, who told Stalcup that he had no control over the headlines. Later, Gray called Stalcup and insisted that he actually did tell Stalcup that the article was going to be placed in a conspiracy theory context:
Gray: “I said it’s a package of conspiracy theories for a conspiracy issue with the JFK thing.”
Stalcup: “No…you never told me that.”
Gray: “Sorry man, I did tell you that,” [adding,] “This is a good thing for you. Like, learn from it, embrace it, and like, figure out a way to get eyeballs on your documentary. I would call the people at Epix [who commissioned the documentary] and show them that you got a write-up in New York Magazine. That’s a big deal.”
Stalcup reviewed his very detailed records of his phone conversations with Gray and found that the New York Magazine reporter had not uttered one word indicating that the piece would be part of a conspiracy edition. In fact, as detailed above, when asked directly about it during the second interview, Gray denied it.
Regarding Gray’s claim to be writing a “serious” piece of investigative journalism, it is reasonable to ask: “What evidence did Gray provide to back up all the sensational headings and title for his three-paragraph piece?”
The answer: none.
Hit Piece Element Two: The Set Up
On page 36, the word “CONSPIRACIES” in red type-face sits above the title of Gray’s piece on TWA Flight 800: “Don’t Trust the CIA When They Tell You ‘IT WAS NOT A MISSILE.” Gray provides no reporting or evidence to justify the previously mentioned “out-there” missile theory headline or to support his title about not trusting the CIA.
His article begins with a line about “two basic camps of skeptics…missile people and non-missile people” and how both camps agree that the government’s version of the story “doesn’t hold up to scrutiny” because there had been “no damage to the fuel tank” and “explosive residue was found on the downed plane.” “Plus,” he adds, “it’s awfully suspicious that the FBI, CIA and Navy would get involved in an airplane-malfunction investigation.”
Gray is factually wrong about “no damage to the fuel tank.” The left wall of the center wing fuel tank was shattered, with pieces curled inward. His inaccurate fuel tank line along with his reporting on the traces of explosives tease the reader into thinking that the “out-there” missile theory might not be so out there after all.
Hit Piece Element Three: Discrediting the Credible Source
Gray moves to Stalcup in paragraph two, describing him as a “physicist by training” and a “gadfly extraordinaire.” These characterizations lessen and demean Stalcup’s qualifications and work. “Physicist by training” belies just how much training Stalcup really has; he holds a Ph.D. in physics and is a highly trained scientist. Regarding “gadfly extraordinaire”, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “gadfly” as “a person who stimulates or annoys especially by persistent criticism.”
To characterize Stalcup as an annoyingly persistent critic ignores what he has actually achieved. He is an extraordinary investigator and reporter. Stalcup spent years reviewing thousands of pages of technical scientific documents generated by the agencies involved in the official investigation. He also conducted his own experiments, submitted dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests, filed lawsuits, spoke to dozens of eyewitnesses, analyzed more than 700 FBI witness summaries, and gathered a group of the government’s own experts—former members of the original investigation who actually handled the hard evidence—to review that evidence and to personally talk to eyewitness for the first time (they were prohibited from doing so during the original investigation). This work has resulted in Stalcup and The TWA 800 investigative team accomplishing what no reporter has been able to do: solve what caused the crash. (A high-profile New York Times reporter admitted to Stalcup that he was not interested in assessing Stalcup’s work because he didn’t have the technical expertise to do so.)
What’s really missing in Gray’s brief paragraph on Stalcup is any actual reporting on the validity or accuracy of the “overlooked critical evidence” Gray refers to in his article and on the eyewitness accounts presented by the TWA 800 investigative team. Gray conveniently fails to mention that a petition to reopen the investigation based on the TWA 800 investigative team’s findings (which include multiple pieces of forensic evidence consistent with a missile hit) is under consideration at the National Transportation Safety Board. Gray arguably has to maintain his silence on these so that he can credibly keep Stalcup in his conspiracy theory piece under the sensational “paranoid” and “out-there” headlines preceding it.
The headlines and subtitle promise to show the reader that a missile downing TWA Flight 800 is an abiding “out-there” conspiracy theory. Gray begins with the only credible investigator in his piece, Stalcup, who can actually disprove the premise of Gray’s article using hard evidence and first-hand sources. Instead, Gray puts Stalcup in a conspiracy theory context, glosses over his credentials, writes nothing about the accuracy or validity of his work and labels him a “gadfly extraordinaire.”
Hit Piece Element Four: Taint Job
Gray presents two more sources in his piece, journalist Peter Lance and Harvard professor Elaine Scarry. Neither subscribes to a missile strike. The cases they make for their own theories fail to meet minimum investigative reporting standards and aren’t credible. Mixing them in with Stalcup, who is a credible source, taints Stalcup by association.
Lance writes about TWA Flight 800 in his book, 9/11 Commission Cover Up: What the Government is Still Hiding About the War on Terror. He reports that a bomb placed over TWA Flight 800’s central fuel tank caused the jetliner’s demise. The physical evidence refutes this. If a bomb had exploded over the center wing tank, it would have blown a hole down into the tank. In fact, the top of the tank remained relatively flat, indicating that no bomb had exploded over it. Beyond that, other physical evidence shows that the initiating event did not occur in the center wing tank.
The only hard evidence Lance writes about is explosives evidence. The presence of PETN and RDX explosives would apply to both a bomb or missile event so it is not enough to definitively prove which explosive device was the culprit. Then Lance mentions that nitroglycerin (used in a Philippines Airlines bombing) was found in TWA’s passenger cabin. An 8/27/1996 article in the Orlando Sentinel titled “Nitroglycerin in TWA 800 Not Suspected in Explosion” mentions the possibility of heart medication being the source of traces of nitroglycerin on the plane. From a reporting perspective, the alleged presence of nitroglycerin on both planes is not proof of a connection between the two events.
Lance also presents an “aggregate” series of “facts” that have no connection to any hard evidence. Not only does he ignore the evidence, he misrepresents and then dismisses the eyewitnesses. Further, he uses the NTSB’s own unproven conclusion to create one of his “facts.”
Lance’s first four “facts” refer to terrorist Ramzi Yousef setting a bomb aboard Philippines Air Line [PAL] 434 to try to explode a center wing tank; to Yousef giving fellow jailbird and mobster Gregory Scarpa a schematic of the bomb trigger he’d used in the PAL 434 blast weeks before TWA 800 exploded; to Yousef telling Scarpa his people would explode a bomb aboard an aircraft (allegedly TWA 800) to seek a mistrial; and to the FBI giving Yousef phone access to his uncle Khalid Shaikh Mohammed who also knew how to build the kind of bomb that blew up PAL 434. There is, simply, nothing connecting these “facts” to TWA 800.
The next “fact” Lance offers is that the chemicals Yousef “suggested” to Scarpa were identical to those found in the TWA wreckage. As shown above, Lance presents no solid evidence connecting the similar explosives, terrorists or a bomb to TWA 800’s demise.
Then Lance points to the “NTSB’s conclusion that an explosion in the center wing fuel tank was the ultimate cause of the…crash.” Not only did the NTSB not prove this, to date they haven’t even been able to conclusively identify an ignition source for the alleged explosion. Further, other hard evidence, including radar data, shows that what happened in the tank was not the initiating event but a secondary event.
Lance’s last “fact” refers to the FBI’s false claims of a dog-sniffing test for explosives being responsible for explosives residue found throughout the TWA Flight 800 wreckage. Since that wasn’t true, Lance reports, the presence of explosives must be attributed to the bomb. This is a logical leap backed up by nothing, least of all any bomb signature damage pattern on or inside the center fuel tank.
With his “aggregated facts,” Lance manufactured connections that simply don’t exist. This is the same technique that some reporters used to show that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was connected to the 9/11 attacks.
Regarding the eyewitnesses, Lance writes: “a number of witnesses reported seeing a “white arc of light just before the explosion…” He fails to mention that more than 65 eyewitnesses identified and interviewed by the FBI reported seeing a rocket or flare rise up from the earth’s surface and meet the plane. A “white arc of light” was not a pervasive observation among the eyewitnesses. It is a vague description that gives the impression the eyewitnesses only saw something up in the sky. This is important for Lance to convey, because he can’t say a bomb already on board the plane caused the crash if dozens of corroborating eyewitness accounts indicate something went up from the earth’s surface and caused the plane to explode. As it was for the CIA, FBI and NTSB, dismissing the witnesses is key for Lance given his explosion-from-within proposition.
If Gray included Lance as a credible source to refute the missile scenario and present a credible bomb scenario, his reporting falls egregiously short on both counts.
While Lance at least mentions one type of hard evidence (explosives in the TWA wreckage) to support his untenable bomb scenario, Gray’s next source, Elaine Scarry, labored under no such compunction in her reporting.
A Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value at Harvard, Scarry wrote “The Fall of TWA 800: The Possibility of Electromagnetic Interference”, a long article in the New York Review of Books presenting a theory to which she attaches no hard evidence.
Scarry’s main thesis is that since “electromagnetic interference” was thought to have caused previous military mishaps and since military units (Coast Guard, Navy and Air National Guard) were in the vicinity of the TWA Flight 800 crash at the time it occurred, then perhaps that same type of interference had caused the jetliner’s demise.
After quoting from a 1997 FAA bulletin saying that interference from lightning and a high intensity electromagnetic environment can “couple voltage and current transients into the electrical/electronic equipment or components,” Scarry surmises that “a sudden pulse or a high-intensity field could have acted as the source of the central fuel tank ignition.” Crucially, she fails to explain how this could occur within the surge-protected fuel probe wiring aboard the jetliner.
The only electronics in the fuel tank are fuel quantity probes, which Boeing showed (during the official TWA Flight 800 investigation) can withstand direct short circuits from voltages of 3,000 volts or more without creating even the weakest of sparks. It would have been virtually impossible, therefore, for a source miles away to introduce into those probes the energy required to cause TWA Flight 800’s fuel tank to explode. The NTSB correctly dismissed Scarry’s work.
Whether or not Scarry intended it, her article feels like a look-here-not-there red herring piece. The content and lack of any credible evidence connected to TWA Flight 800 in Scarry’s article raises these question about Gray using her as a source in his piece: Did he read her article? Did he notice it didn’t mention any hard evidence and was technically far-fetched? Was he using her work to discredit the missile scenario while presenting the electromagnetic interference scenario as credible? Here, Mr. Gray clearly failed to meet minimum investigative journalism standards and practices.
Based on questions Gray asked Stalcup during phone interviews about electromagnetic interference and a bomb scenario, Stalcup guessed that Gray had seen Scarry and Lance’s reporting. He warned Gray about their work in an 11/10/13 email: “You mentioned two other scenarios: bomb and some sort of electromagnetic wave. Both of these scenarios were considered and dismissed by the NTSB. There simply is no evidence of either. Each are [sic] inconsistent with the physical, radar, and eyewitness evidence. Because of this, you will not likely find any first-hand sources from within the NTSB investigation to support either scenario.”
Gray ignored Stalcup. Nearly half of Gray’s article focuses on the discredited reporting of these two sources, but again, not as subscribers to “out-there” missile theories. Further, if Gray had scrutinized their work, he would realize that these sources couldn’t credibly make a case for their own alternative theories. So, after discrediting Stalcup by including him in his piece, Gray brings in two other sources with questionable credibility, further tainting Stalcup by association.
There’s a surprising kicker to Gray using Lance and Scarry as sources: Nine years ago, New York Magazine reporter Boris Kachka wrote this about their reporting on TWA Flight 800:
“While the cumulative evidence [Lance writes about] is startling, a good deal of it is also circumstantial.”
Regarding Scarry’s work, Kachka wrote: “The study [looking into Scarry’s theory] found that even in worst-case scenarios, the interference wouldn’t be strong enough to bring down an aircraft. Scarry went on to posit her theory for two other flights, including the Egypt Air crash off Nantucket that was almost definitely caused by co-pilot murder-suicide.”
So the question for Gray here is: If your own magazine had already found these sources questionable, why, without any new evidence from either, would you use them to make your point? Basic reporting standards and practices require a reporter to use valid sources with valid, fact-checked information to tell an accurate story. Gray has not met those standards. Further, Gray misled the only credible source in his piece when he told Stalcup he would seriously consider his evidence. Gray not only failed to do so, he also grossly mischaracterized Stalcup and his work, which is backed by first-hand sources like retired Senior NTSB Aviation Accident Investigator Hank Hughes. Hughes, who oversaw the complete reconstruction of the TWA 800’s interior, is on the TWA 800 documentary’s investigative team that presented hard evidence consistent with a missile strike.
Clearly Stalcup is the target of this hit piece. He is the only credible source in the piece. He is the only source addressing the subject of Gray’s article. He is the only source who can present hard evidence consistent with a missile strike. Gray provides no reporting highlighting these facts and then places Stalcup in questionable company with two problematic sources who neither address the subject of the article nor offer credible alternatives.
Editor With A Past
Gray’s misrepresentations prompted Stalcup to reach out to Gray’s editor, New York Magazine literary editor David Wallace-Wells. Wells was in charge of the magazine’s entire “conspiracy compendium” piece. He admitted to Stalcup that he did not consider him to be an “out-there” conspiracy theorist.
A quick Google search reveals that Wallace-Wells has done this before. After writing a piece for The Nation magazine titled “The Pirate’s Prophet” on scholar and essayist Lewis Hyde, Wallace-Wells was called out by journalist and author Daniel B. Smith who had written a profile of Hyde and on whose reporting Wallace-Wells had previously relied. Smith wrote a letter to The Nation characterizing Wallace-Wells’s article as a “hit piece that doesn’t even bother to get its facts right.” Smith showed how Wallace-Wells had criticized Hyde by citing historian Stephen Lears’s comments about Hyde’s “prelapsarian vision.” In fact, in his writing, Lears specifically singles out Hyde as one who “sidesteps” or does not share the “prelapsarian vision”–the exact opposite of what Wallace-Wells was reporting. Wallace-Wells responded to Smith’s letter with this mea culpa: “Daniel B. Smith is right to point out that Jackson Lears was admiring in his 1983 review of [Hyde’s book] The Gift, and that Lears was careful to argue in it that Hyde was too nimble a thinker to succumb to the charms of a ‘prelapsarian vision’…that context should certainly have been made clear, and I apologize for the mistake, both to Hyde and to Lears.”
Given Wallace-Wells’s role in placing Stalcup and the TWA 800 investigative team’s work in New York Magazine’s conspiracy theory issue, it appears that he has not taken to heart the final admonition Smith addressed to him: “takedown is an exacting business and honesty and accuracy are its prerequisites.”
The Journalism Community: See No Evil, Hear No Evil…
This hit piece is emblematic of the deterioration of rigorous standards and practices in American journalism today. Not only is Gray’s own reporting highly problematic, he and Wallace-Wells have used the New York Magazine platform to insult an investigator and reporter—Stalcup—who has held himself and his investigative team to the highest standards of investigative reporting.
The fact is that the only scenario consistent with the forensic evidence and corroborated by eyewitness accounts is a missile strike. For the last 17 years, government officials and officials in charge of the investigation who have not wanted the press or anyone else to go there have placed this scenario in the conspiracy theory bin. This ongoing duplicity works for them. It also works for the reporters who have engaged in official source reporting on this story, because evidence presented in “TWA Flight 800” discredits their previous reporting.
Gray and New York Magazine are not alone in their high-profile presentations of unsubstantiated, inaccurate reporting on the TWA story and the TWA 800 investigative team’s work. They are joined by, among others, CNN, Popular Mechanics, Bloomberg Businessweek, Politico, and Business Insider. Rebuttals of their reporting can be found in the “Fact Checking” section of the TWA 800 investigative team’s website, flight800doc.com.
The journalism community’s silence on the kind of rampant violation of ethical standards and misleading reporting illustrated above is deafening. Reporters and media critics endlessly point to corporate control of the news, dwindling resources and a host of other issues making good journalism on important issues more and more difficult to provide.
Rarely, if ever, do they hold themselves or their colleagues accountable for their own questionable work. Another problem seems to be the lack of awareness of the existence of this kind of reporting. When asked to provide a definition of “hit piece,” Roy Peter Clark, Vice President and Senior Scholar for Reporting, Writing and Editing at Poynter Institute (described on their website as “a school that exists to ensure that our communities have access to excellent journalism”) wrote: “I know the term, but I’m struck by the fact that since I began my work in journalism in 1979, I have never used it. Not in writing. Not even in conversation. That suggests to me that a true “hit piece” is a rare occurrence, a kind of outlaw genre. If it happened more often, we would hear about the consequences, at least in the hallways of traditional journalism. That does not mean that there is not bad or irresponsible journalism. It just makes it hard to imagine that there are many reporters out there who set out to distort the evidence to make someone or some thing look bad.”
Taking a harder look at the journalism landscape in this country, particularly coverage of major controversial stories about powerful individuals and institutions could be an instructive exercise for those who find hit pieces and deleteriously bad journalism rare. In fact, in the same New York Magazine issue, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, David Wallace-Wells’s brother, opens the magazine’s conspiracy theory segment with a hit piece on investigative reporter Gary Webb’s well-documented story, “Dark Alliance,” about the CIA protecting cocaine trafficking by Nicaraguan Contra rebels in the 1980s. The hit piece continues several pages later under the headlines “AIDS is a bioweapon” and “CRACK is too.” Gary Webb is specifically mentioned in a paragraph under the second headline. Investigative reporter Robert Parry has written a fact-based rebuttal to Benjamin Wallace-Wells’s piece here: http://bit.ly/18OOU91. Besides Benjamin Wallace-Wells, other journalists who baselessly vilified Webb and his work include high profile names like Bernard Kalb (for CNN’s “Reliable Sources”) and Walter Pincus, Roberto Suro and Howard Kurtz (for the Washington Post).
Reporting on the run-up to the Iraq war is another well-documented case in point. Those who asked the right questions, like Knight-Ridder’s reporters, were attacked or derided. In television network newsrooms, reporters feared being hit with the “unpatriotic” label, which resulted in widespread self-censorship. Dan Rather, Christiane Amanpour and Ashleigh Banfield were among the high-profile broadcast journalists who spoke publicly about this.
What is rare, though, is accountability for bad reporting.
No reporter is forced to write a hit piece, engage in un-fact-checked official source reporting, or report lies. Every reporter who does chooses to do so, often with impunity. Worse, when whistleblowers and competent journalists step in to correct their inaccurate reporting, these reporters often go on the attack. The damage they do to civil society and the social fabric is easy to see. America is not the country it used to be, and with their work, these journalists have contributed to the current state of affairs.
Postscript: In a November 26, 2013 email, Wallace-Wells informed Stalcup that Gray and New York Magazine’s fact-checkers, editors and lawyers all agreed that there “was nothing wrong or misleading about the article as published.” Wallace-Wells added that, “unless you can show us new problems with the text we published, we will not be issuing an apology.”
About the Author
Kristina Borjesson has been an award-winning investigative reporter and media critic for thirty years. She is the producer/writer/director of the newly released, critically acclaimed investigative documentary, “TWA Flight 800”. She has won major awards for her work in both print and TV, including Emmy and Edward R. Murrow broadcast awards for her investigative reporting for CBS Reports. For her books, INTO THE BUZZSAW: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press and FEET TO THE FIRE: The Media After 9/11, Top Journalists Speak Out, Borjesson garnered the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse Award for Media Criticism and two Gold Medal Independent Publisher Book awards. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.