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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Washington Press Corps Don't Know Conspiracy

For us folks beyond the Beltway, the best comedy on TV is a live telecast of the White House press corps in action.

Like when the corps was (and continues to be) in an uproar over suspicions (theirs) that Vice President Dick Cheney engaged in some sort of political conspiracy to hide (from them) the accidental shooting of hunting partner Harry Whittington.

But take it from a Chicago writer, that’s no political conspiracy; here it’s just everyday affairs of state. If you want a real political conspiracy, check out a recent Chicago headline: A Cook County jail guard reportedly plotted to allow six inmates to escape in order to influence an election.

For everything that happened in Watergate, and everything that President Bush supposedly hides from the public, they never—to my knowledge—tried to stage a prison break to boost their election chances.

At the risk of confusing you, here’s what allegedly happened in the Chicago jailbreak: The six, including a convicted killer, recently made a break for it by supposedly overpowering a jail guard. Now, the guard reportedly is telling investigators that he conspired to help the six escape to embarrass the incumbent sheriff, Michael Sheahan, and his chief of staff, Tom Dart, who run the jail. The conspiracy’s beneficiary was supposedly Richard Remus, one of Dart’s opponents in next month’s race for sheriff.

Confused? Wait, there’s more: The guard once was part of Sheahan’s Special Operations Response Team, which Remus formerly headed. He no longer does because he and the team were accused by the sheriff’s office in 2003 of abusing inmates.

Remus denied abusing the inmates and, in turn, accused the sheriff of his own conspiracy to smear Remus. Why? Because, Remus said, the sheriff wanted to deflect criticism from his own scandal: three escapes in a year, and a triple shooting involving a gun that was smuggled into maximum security. Probably a result of another conspiracy.

Remus denies he had anything to do with any of it. He told the Chicago Tribune, “No way in hell did any of these guys do something this stupid for a [explicative] campaign. If he [the guard] did do it, put him in the electric chair.”

So, who to believe? Chicagoans can never be sure in such cases of campaign mischief. Here’s a typical example: a candidate for, say, alderman has a brick thrown through his campaign office’s window. He accuses his opponent of the throwing the brick. But, the opponent replies with equal credibility, the candidate himself threw the brick through his own window just to get attention. So, it’s a wash.

In the present case, the unnamed guard, Remus and Sheahan could all end up accusing each other of concocting the whole thing. By the way, there’s a third candidate in the race, who’s probably regretting that he can’t somehow get in on the accusing. Also, by the way, all escapees were quickly captured.

No isolated incident, this. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan is at this moment standing trial for conspiracy and fraud. In Chicago itself, conspiracy, fraud and corruption charges are flying all over the place, leading all the way up to the city clerk. Some speculate that investigation will even ensnarl Mayor Richard M. Daley. No one would be surprised here if everyone in City Hall were involved in a conspiracy to feed at the public trough. (A recent Tribune poll shows that a big majority of Chicagoans believes that Daley knows about the graft, but a majority also believes that Daley’s doing a good job.)

Shining the light on all these conspiracies is U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who—it seems to some partisans—is involved in a political conspiracy of his own to nail Cheney’s former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby for outing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent.

With all these conspiracies, I’m grateful to have the guidance of the White House press corps to turn up some more. The White House press grilled presidential press secretary Scott McClellan as if he, Cheney, Bush and lord knows who else conspired to hide the shooting from the public. I gather that a part of the evidence was someone’s decision to make the incident public by (gasp) notifying a Texas newspaper instead of the White House press corps. “What did the president know and when did they know it?” the assembled mob demanded in terms reminiscent of the Watergate scandal. Someone said it reminded her of the “levee story.” Someone else suggested the administration sat on the story to avoid the Sunday political talk shows. Someone else demanded to know if the vice president would resign.

Any group taking themselves this seriously obviously can’t imagine how hilarious and self-absorbed they look. Especially to those of us who engage in the writing racket in Chicago, where real political conspiracies grow like mushrooms after the rain. Yeah, the Bush administration made a PR mess of another “situation.” But I’m sure the eyes of the Washington press corps would have bugged even more if the administration had disclosed the shooting to them earlier, say at midnight, making them disturb their slumber or other Saturday night activities.

What would have been even more fun to watch is if someone had leaked the shooting to the Washington press corps before the administration announced it. Perceiving an even darker Bush conspiracy, the press corps would have really gone bug-eyed. And what fun that would have been for the rest of us.

Domestic Stem Cells

No such thing, right? Language ought to be exact, right?

Then, why can’t professional communicators, once called journalists, continue to shortchange the language, and the public, in their “reporting” of two major issues: “domestic spying” and “opposition” to stem cell research?

Take “domestic spying,” which has become a standard media shortcut for describing the Bush administration’s program to gather intelligence about terrorists by listening to their conversations with folks in America, without a warrant. The repetitive use of “domestic spying” has successfully implanted in many minds the idea that the government is engaged in willy-nilly wiretapping of Americans talking with each other. Which it is not.

When you telephone someone in Paris, do you call that a “domestic” call, because you are calling from New York? Do you call the international operator and say, “I’d like to place a domestic call?” No, you call it an international call. Only a moron would call it an international call. By the same token, if reporters want to brand the program “spying,” then shouldn’t they more properly call it international spying?

Some reporters are guilty of the same mindless misuse of the language when they talk about the Bush administration’s (or conservatives’ or Republicans’) opposition to “stem cell research.” In fact, reporters would be hard pressed to find anyone, including the aforementioned troglodytes, who actually opposes all stem cell research. Their opposition is to one form of stem cell research, involving the use of embryonic cells. Their opposition is based on ethical, moral or religious principles, and the recognition that stem cells from other sources—such as “adult” stem cells harvested from bone marrow or umbilical cords—show greater promise.

Everyone should be capable of understanding the difference between “stem cell research” and “embryonic stem cell research.” So, you can only conclude that reporters who continue to misapply the terms “domestic spying” and “stem cell research” are either incredibly ignorant or biased. Or more terrifying, both.