Out on a Limb

Posted: Apr 08, 2004 12:00 AM

Several months ago, groundskeepers were unloading a pair of new trees outside the White House. These were fully-grown trees on flatbeds. They must have been brought in to replace some existing trees that had died.

Remarkably, Paul Krugman hasn?t yet written a column blaming President Bush for killing White House trees. But he?s blamed the administration for just about everything else.

The New York Times columnist has taken the president to task for ?deception and abuse of power.? For allegedly ignoring terrorism warnings before Sept. 11. For having ?mortgaged the nation?s future? with his insistence on cutting taxes. All that and more, in just the last month.

Krugman writes like a broken record. Virtually every one of his twice-weekly columns targets George W. Bush.

That?s all right as far as it goes. Krugman has a political axe to grind, and the Times is willing to let him grind away. But he long ago drifted far beyond mere political criticism into outright paranoia. To him, the Bush administration is omnipotent, bulldozing all dissenters. Consider Krugman?s April 2 column about what he?ll later call ?yawngate.?

On March 29 David Letterman showed videotape of a young man yawning during one of President Bush?s speeches. The tape was amusing, but also difficult to believe. After all, at one point the boy crouches over with his head between his legs before standing up again. Wouldn?t one of the people nearby have at least checked in with him to make sure he was okay?

Apparently, though, the tape was real. And here?s where the controversy begins. On March 30 CNN reran Letterman?s entire segment during its morning show. After the footage aired, anchor Daryn Kagan announced, ?We?re being told by the White House that the kid, as funny as he was, was edited into that video.?

Not according to Letterman. ?That is an out and out 100 percent absolute lie,? he huffed that night on his show. ?The kid absolutely was there, and he absolutely was doing everything we pictured via the videotape.?

Krugman smelled a rat. ?A White House that thinks it?s cute to have Mr. Bush make jokes about missing W.M.D. should be able to handle a little ribbing about boring speeches,? Krugman sniffed on April 2. Then he explained how something like this could happen: ?In short, CNN passed along a smear that it attributed to the White House. When the smear backfired, it declared its previous statements inoperative and said the White House wasn?t responsible.?

In short, Krugman believes the Bush administration called CNN -- within minutes of a segment airing, no less -- and somehow pressured them to announce that some video had been faked.
And that CNN immediately did so. Sure, that?s believable. In Krugman?s mind, it probably happens all the time.

What actually seems to have happened is fairly simple. CNN?s Atlanta headquarters did get a call from the White House -- CNN?s staff at the White House.

The network?s White House bureau believed the tape had been faked. And CNN?s video of the event was inconclusive, since the cameraman zoomed in when the president started speaking and the boy was not visible in the shot.

So CNN?s own employees called the control room when they saw that video on the air, to point out they believed it wasn?t real. In other words, Kagan wasn?t taking instructions from George Bush and his minions; she was taking instructions from Senior White House correspondent John King and his. When a CNN anchor refers to ?the White House? she may mean the president?s staff, but she?s just as likely to mean the network?s own reporters and producers there.

That?s not good enough for Krugman. On April 6, he ran a non-apologetic apology. ?CNN called me to insist that despite what it first said, the administration really, truly wasn?t responsible for the network?s claim that David Letterman?s embarrassing video of a Bush speech was a fake. I still don?t understand why the network didn?t deny White House involvement until it retracted the charge.?

Krugman?s question is answered by Occam?s razor: The simplest explanation is usually the correct one. In this case, the simplest explanation is that CNN messed up and then fixed its mistake with a correction. Believe me, it happens all the time. And that explanation is certainly more plausible than thinking CNN is aiding and abetting the White House in covering up for ?yawngate.?

The beauty of a conspiracy theory is that it can?t be disproved. Any new evidence that seems to disprove it is actually a clever forgery and simply adds to the depth of the conspiracy.
Luckily we?ve got Paul Krugman out there, to get to the bottom of these controversies.

Coming next week in The New York Times: ?Why the Bush administration?s healthy forest initiative is killing trees on the White House grounds.? Why not? Krugman?s already written -- and the Times has published -- sillier columns.