Tom Ridge Did Not Backpedal (A Journey Inside The Media Simulacrum)

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The headlines are all the rage in Washington, D.C., today: Tom Ridge, the first secretary of Homeland Security, is “backpedaling” on his claim that he was pressured to raise the terror alert. “Ridge backpedals on pressure to raise terror alert level,” announces a headline in USA Today, which was picked up by Politico’s Mike Allen with the snappy rejoinder, “YA SAW THIS COMING.” And so the echoes begin: Ridge Backpedals, Says There Was No Pressure To Raise Terror Alert Levels,” announces the Huffington Post’s homepage, with a link to the USA Today story. “Ridge backpedals on ‘pressure’ claims” announces the conservative blog, Hot Air. It goes on.

But did Ridge backpedal? No. What occurred was a classic sales job by a publisher trying to sell books. The press fell for it, embarrassed itself, and is now blaming Ridge for all the confusion, which makes everything more embarrassing. I will explain after the jump.

Until this weekend, Ridge has made no public comments about his book. But what he wrote in the book has remained unchanged. In a section describing a discussion on the eve of the 2004 election about whether or not to raise the terror alert, Ridge writes:

Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level, and was supported by Rumsfeld. There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None. I wondered, ‘Is this about security or politics?’ Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president’s approval rating in the days after the raising of the threat level.

Note that Ridge never says he was pressured to raise the threat level for political reasons, nor does he detail anything that Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld or Attorney General John Ashcroft said to suggest that they were thinking about politics. He only says that the thought crossed his mind that politics may have been in play. Now, one can either read this as an accurate description by Ridge of what happened, or a careful hedging of the facts, so as not to betray his loyalty to two other members of the Bush cabinet. Either way, there is no doubt about what Ridge wrote.

But about two weeks ago, when the noise about Ridge’s book began to surface online and in the press, most reporters had no idea what Ridge had written in his book. They only knew what Ridge’s publisher said was in the book. In a press release on its website, Ridge’s publisher, Thomas Dunne Books, announced that the book would reveal: “How Ridge effectively thwarted a plan to raise the national security alert just before the 2004 Election.” No mention of politics there. But a “Washington Whispers” mention by U.S. News went further:

Among the headlines promoted by publisher Thomas Dunne Books: Ridge was . . .  pushed to raise the security alert on the eve of President Bush’s re-election, something he saw as politically motivated and worth resigning over.

Now we were getting somewhere. “Something he saw as politically motivated” became a New York Times headline, on August 20: “Bush Official, in Book, Tells of Pressure on ’04 Vote.” The lede of that story was more accurate, saying that Ridge only “suspected” political influence. But by now, all nuance was lost. CNN had Fran Townsend, one of its paid employees and a Bush White House veteran, come on to deny the Ridge claim (or the supposed Ridge claim): “Not only do I not think that it – that politics played any part in it at all – it was never discussed,” said Townsend. On its face, it sounded like Townsend was fighting with Ridge. They were not. Ridge never said that politics were discussed. He only said that he thought politics might have played some role. Meanwhile, the news outlets that cater to more ideological audiences, including the blogs, were having a field day. For many liberal writers, Ridge’s admission only confirmed what they had always believed: That the color-coded alert system was a political tool. It no longer mattered that Ridge actually says in the book that the alert system was never changed for political reasons.

There is a concept in philosophy called the “simulacrum.” If a “simulation” is the representation of something that exists, call it the original thing, the “simulacrum” is a representation that has been detached from, and no longer has anything to do with, the original thing. It refers only to iteslf. The French Philosopher Jean Baudrillard puts it this way:

These would be the successive phases of the image:

  1. It is the reflection of a basic reality.
  2. It masks and perverts a basic reality.
  3. It masks the absence of a basic reality.
  4. It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

So it has gone with the story of Tom Ridge’s assertion. He made a statement. His publisher summarized the statement, distorting it slightly. The press distorted the statement further. The press began talking to itself about the distortion. And then the original statement, which Ridge had put down in the book and remained unchanged, ceased to exist. His statement was replaced by a popular simulacrum: All that remained was the distortion of what Ridge said in his book. The original statement was gone. And so, we have big news today: Ridge Backpedals!!!

Now a disclosure: I am not a purely objective observer. On Sunday, I interviewed Ridge, just like USA Today did. When I told my editors what Ridge said–that he was not going to “second-guess” the motivations of Ashcroft and Rumsfeld–my editors responded by asking if Ridge was backpedaling from what he said in his book. I explained that he was not, since he had been so vague in his original assertion, and so my story, which was published online today, does not lead with any claims of retreat on the part of Ridge. Furthermore, I decided that it was more interesting to write about what Ridge said than to make my piece into a sort of media critique of all that was wrong with journalism. And so that’s what I did.

But here’s where it gets more interesting. Because I now write primarily on the Internet, my success as a reporter is easily measured by the amount of links and eyeballs I get on my stories. The more links, the more eyeballs, the more money TIME makes, the happier my editors are, the happier I am. (As it happens, these connections are not always explicit or fixed–I am not solely judged on my traffic–but as the news business continues its march to unprofitability, these pressures are growing ever stronger all across the media landscape.)

As a result, there is a constant pressure, which I have written about before, to pen stories in a way that feed into popular narratives with explosive charges, even when the narratives and charges are not exactly right. The DC journalistic establishment increasingly functions as a group of lemmings, all racing for the same cliff. Where once TIME had a different audience from USA Today, or the New York Times, we now all compete for the same eyeballs, on the same platforms, your laptop, desktop, or iPhone. USA Today’s editors, and Huffington Post’s producers, know they can get a lot more people to link to a story that says “Ridge Backpedaled” than one that says, “Ridge Authors Memoir That Carefully Hedges Thoughts On Role Of Politics In Terror Alerts.” And so, I believe, this tendency of leaving reality behind, and embracing the simulacrum, will only increase over the coming years.

So strap in. It’s going to be a wild ride.