Tales of the Tapes

Media | Familiarity

What the odd discovery of tapes that far-off year of 1994 mean for multimedia archival and research.

Four years and five months after the start of the Iraq war, a video has surfaced that Dick Cheney, as a private citizen in 1994, had said that invading Baghdad would invite a quagmire. This isn't wholly surprising; it was well known that he and the rest of George H.W. Bush's national security team uniformly opposed a march to Baghdad in 1991. The war had ended after the liberation of Kuwait had been accomplished and the “no-fly” zones and sanctions were applied to contain the Saddam Hussein regime. In an NPR interview that year, which All Things Considered replayed in a August 26, 2005 story by David Greene (see transcripted quote), Cheney had made the same point. On September 29, 2004 Seattle Post-Intelligence investigative reporter Joel Connelly unearthed a “little-noticed” speech of Cheney's in 1992 to the Discovery Institute once again defending the decision not to extend the invasion. Certainly, video adds more veracity, and thus has more impact.

Somewhere between the 120,000th viewing (Sunday night) and the 407,905th viewing (Tuesday night) did the uploader of the YouTube video give any explanation as to the provenance of the video: “This clip was originally aired on C-SPAN3 [History] on the evening of Thursday, August 9th.” Previously, he had amended in his description of thie video with this: “YouTube user politicztv is a LOSER for ripping this video off and putting it up as his own.”

The explanation is necessary because the uploader had deliberately blocked out the area showing the C-SPAN logo in favor of his own. The blackout is subtle, because the black circle is super-imposed of Cheney's dark blazer. But when he moves his hand, it's clear that the original logo is obscured:

What's strange is that the user grandtheftcountry has posted 35 news clips onto YouTube over the last two months, and in all previous cases the network logo was left visible. How disappointing, given that C-SPAN made a concerted effort this year to liberalize their copyright policy in order to allow non-commercial copying of official government events, as long as attribution was given. Then again, the Cheney interview in 1994 wasn't a government event. But shouldn't this uploader have simply figured that leaving the attribution in was the responsible thing to do?

This led us to try our more about this random citizen committing an act of journalism, as it were. His website indicates that he goes by the handle Fresh, and other websites where he has accounts describe him as a 33-year old New York multimedia designer. In 2005 he used his artistic talents to rip off the design of the popular “Grand Theft Auto” videogame to create his own T-shirts, which he sells for $20 plus $5.50 shipping & handling. The T-shirts, and website, promote his 9/11 conspiracy theory. It identifies a number of reporters and activists as “The Resistance,” introduced with this text: “It seems that swimming against the current of mainstream thought and obedience tends to make one unpopular, and sometimes even a target for elimination.” These may well fit the familiar conspiracy-mongers listed, but it's hard to see Jon Stewart or Bill Moyers, also listed, as fitting either of those characteristics. “Those featured in this section are in now way affiliated with Grand Theft Country unless otherwise specified.” [I emailed one of the site's addresses for comment and have not heard back– by the time this was originally posted. I did hear back on August 25th].

The theatrics of Fresh do not undermine the plain truth of the videotape. Still, a person who makes his trade in extreme paranoid agitprop sometimes finds that he has to drop into rational discourse. What a neat parallel to the Vice President, who has extreme and often paranoid positions from the opposite side of the spectrum; we now have to consider that he was, once upon a time, was a rational and cautious thinker: “It's a quagmire if you go that far and try to take over Iraq.” (from E&P's transcript)

Still, what's remarkable is that no one found this earlier—five years ago would have been a good time. Vice President Cheney appeared on Meet the Press with Tim Russert on September 8, 2002 and then on March 16, 2003, three days before the Iraq war. Russert asked him reasonably tough questions. In the March interview he showed a video clip from Cheney's appearance on the the show during the 2000 campaign. Cheney had said in 2000 that they didn't go to Baghdad on the advice of the neighboring governments in the coalition. What had changed, to Cheney and the war's supporters, was the world on 9/11. But while the specter of global terrorism may have changed the urgency for war, it could not have changed the expectations about the quagmire. Either the 1991 NPR clip or the 1994 C-SPAN clip would have brought that more directly.

Most certainly Russert had asked his assistant producers to find a clip of Cheney defending his 1991 decision. Either they couldn't search throught the C-SPAN archives, or they just found the one from Meet the Press of three years earlier, and chose not to look any further. And that's too bad.

As Michael Kinsley famously quipped, a gaffe is when a politician slips up and tells the truth. The 2006 “YouTube election” inspired many to find “macaca moments” of politicians saying stupid things and offending people. With Kinsley's observation in mind, it's a harder find yet to find a political candidate speaking against type.

Barely a footnote to the 2004 election was an old video clip of the President from ten years prior. For the July/August 2004 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, national correspondent James Fallows watched several hours of debate footage George Bush and John Kerry in elections past (“When George Meets John”). He was surprised to find that candidate Bush, running for Governor of Texas in 1994, was extremely articulate; he didn't show any of the verbal tics or malapropisms which he'd become known for by the nation as a whole. The magazine didn't see fit to post the video online, either because they weren't use to doing anything of that nature at the time (a choice unthinkable today), or because of the inconvenient placement of the time code window, covering Bush's mouth most of the time (see picture at right).

The video was posted online only due to the diligence to Bruce Bendinger, a retired advertising executive and textbook editor in Chicago. As he wrote on his website, he had read the article when it was originally published and initially paid it little attention. He only thought about it further because of a letter in the October issue by a doctor who issued a diagnosis of presenile dementia in the President. Bendinger had a friend who knew a contact of Fallows, who then instructed him of how to get the tape (the article mentioned KERA, the public television affiliate in Dallas). On October 8th, with the election less than a month away, Bendinger and friend Augie Augenstein stitched up a video comparing and contrasting the ten year difference.

In the pre-YouTube days, even a distinguished ad man had trouble spreading a viral video. Bendinger posted it to his website and then emailed it to the blogitics blog (now defunct). He signed up for a DailyKos account and posted the link there. This original version of the video can still be seen on iFilm, where it was posted in 2005. On Sunday, October 10th, Kos took notice and promoted it to the main page. On the 28th, after the next round of debates, Bendinger extended the video, adding narration and credits. This version of the video eventually posted to YouTube in 2006.

I asked Bendinger over email whether he'd ever got any more press; he said he hadn't (Truthdig wrote up the episode in 2006). By odd chance, a separate sideshow surrounding the debates had already emerged– the perceived “bulge” in Bush's back, which some suspected to be a wireless receiver, and then later a wearable defibrillator. (see “Theories of the Bulge: The Timeline” for my full report on the coverage) Over two dozen blog and media mentions dug into this story: the President's tailor was interviewed, and even Charlie Gibson asked President Bush himself on Good Morning America a week before election day. Eric Lindorff, an investigative reporter, wrote an article in FAIR firmly convinced that the New York Times had spiked an election week story “proving” that Bush had worn a wire for cueing, and thus “cheated” on the debate. Still, as skeptics reasoned, if Bush was being fed instructions, why did he do so badly? Many had forgotten that he had once upon a time, before the pressure of the job was upon him, been a superb debater.

Lindorff's theory tapped into a common vein – that the media has become complacent in allowing George Bush to squeak by in 2000 and then to build support for the war (for the latter, see books by Eric Boehlert, by Frank Rich, by Danny Schechter; Lowell Bergman's NewsWar Frontline documentary). The solution, in the minds of many media reformers, has been citizen journalism– an army of reporters spread through out the land.

More reporting could certainly be good. The question to consider is what type of reporting. Suppose that over the last few years the American “citizen journalists” could ask for one thing from media companies: (a) fair use clearance to post multimedia clips of current news on their blogs, or (b) a better index of print, audio, and video news pieces going back the last couple decades.

The choices are not strictly mutually exclusive; one is a legal matter and the other, engineering. It just seems that most of the attention from the citizen journalism movement has given has been to the former, at the possible expense of the latter. The latter effort has largely been driven at newspapers, as a 2005 Online Journalism Review article attests. And, in fact, independent of the strides that newspapers have made, LexisNexis and HighBeam Research and even local libraries have been filling this gap. Searching for audio or video clips is another matter entirely. One can physically get to the Paley Center for Media in New York or Los Angeles (previously known as the Museum of Television and Radio, until it was renamed this summer), which has  140,000 programs and advertisements, or better yet, the Vanderbilt Television News Archive [see below], with 850,000 plus items.

Still, they both fall short of the efforts of the The New York Times, which has an online database of the 2.5 million digitized articles since 1981 and 11.3 milllion scanned articles from 1851. The networks may have the fear that putting an online search would encourage a new generation of bloggers stretching the boundaries of fair use (at the great expense of digitization). At the very least they should make some headway towards providing a universal index accessible over the Internet.

This episode reminds us how the 1990's are fast becoming an ancient era of American media. Cultural critics like Neil Postman and Bill McKibben were trying to hammer the nails into the coffin of television. Buried amidst all the tapes of that time were two from 1994 which offered precious insights into the minds of our nation's leaders in a more humble mood. One was surprising; the other, less, but their appearance after a decade begs the question: what else are we missing?

Update, August 20th: I followed the trail of the reproduction of this video, and continued non-attribution to C-SPAN, by professional media in Internet Slashups. I also discovered the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, and the state of video archival efforts, in Why is there no universal video news search?

Update, August 25th: I have now heard back from Fresh, in response to inquiries for a follow-up article. I shall add now that while his edit of the video was (that is, not accidental), it was by no means malicious. Stay tuned for the follow-up.