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Balls to You, Lars Ulrich

Despite what you may have heard, Lars Ulrich has balls. According to what appeared to be a CNN news article circulated rapidly on the web, Ulrich suffered a December 17 attack by a napster supporter, in which he sustained “mild gunshot wounds to the groin and abdomen.” the story was a hoax, albeit a clever one; Metallica’s publicist, Sherry Ring-Ginsberg, confirms that Lars’s testicles are fine. Says Charles “Chuck Rock” Belak-Berger, the 19-year-old administrator of Abobo.com, the site responsible for the story: “It was intended to be a harmless parody of the recent anti-MP3 [legal] action. Within hours, the URL was on message boards across the Internet. And even more amazing, many people believed it was true. We realized our joke may be going too far and pulled the plug.”

Lars Ulrich is not alone as a target for Internet hoaxes. In recent weeks, MSNBC.com appeared to run a story about the Supreme Court legalizing marijuana, a faux New Yorker Web site has been making the rounds in literary circles, and several news organizations—NBCi, CNN, and MTV—have been made to seem as though they ran a story that falsely reported rapper Eminem had died in a car accident.

Making a hoax site is easy, because geeks can create an authentic look just by copying the design code readily available through an ordinary Web browser. The parodies can be especially deceptive thanks to a loophole in the way browsers read addresses. For the Ulrich story, the link posted to message boards and forwarded via e-mail appeared to stem from the CNN server: www.cnn.com&breaking—news@1074199347/ulrich.shooting.html. A browser considers everything before the ‘@’ as an unnecessary user ID and password, then sends the viewer to the location specified by the numbers and letters that follow, in this case, Abobo.com. Likewise, an unsuspecting parent might think www.disney.com&kidfriendly@ 204.177.92.196 links to Mickey and friends, when in fact it leads to the graphically depicted carnal acts of Sex.com.

“People get links forwarded to them all the time,” says Jessica R. Friedman, a new media attorney for the Manhattan firm of Reboul, MacMurray, Hewitt, Maynard and Kristol. “People are used to seeing ‘cnn.com/blah blah blah.’ ”




Making a hoax site is easy, because geeks can create an authentic look just by copying the design code readily available through an ordinary Web browser.


Representatives for MTV and CNN downplayed the incidents, describing them as pranks rather than hacks. But Friedman says the danger lies not in hacking, but in trademark infringement. “People will be confused into believing that this story is true, and when it turns out to be a hoax, they are likely to believe that CNN made a mistake,” says Friedman. “CNN’s reputation is with broadcasting true, real-time news. You’re talking about harm to the goodwill of a company. CNN’s reputation is the basis for their billions of dollars of revenue, including Internet advertising revenue.”

That’s of little concern to a guy like Chris Rhee, a 15-year-old student at San Jose’s Lynbrook High School who runs an online journal, Chris-Sucks.com, which he uses to host a hoax of MTV.com. Using the loophole in Web addresses, he mimics the appearance of MTV.com news in a fabricated story headlined “Eminem Killed in Car Accident.” Rhee claims his site has received as many as 200,000 views in one day. “I didn’t start this rumor,” says Rhee. “I think someone first did it on an NBCi page and a CNN page. I just redid the news story with the MTV design.”

The phony Eminem story alerted Metallica’s publicist to the impact of Net hoaxes just prior to the fictional Ulrich shooting. “I have a teenage daughter,” says Ring-Ginsberg, “and that weekend, she came into my room almost in tears, saying that Eminem had been killed. Then a few days later, the Lars thing happened. And even though you know it’s not true, you still pause.”

Ultimately, the lesson to be learned here may be a tried-and-true one. “We didn’t intend to malevolently trick anyone,” says Belak-Berger. “And we regret doing so if we did. This may serve to educate millions who otherwise might have learned by being defrauded, having their children deceived by pedophiles, or worse. It all goes back to the adage ‘Don’t believe everything you see or read,’ especially when it’s on the Internet.”

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Beyond 2000 and ScienceDaily

With scientific research and technological developments proceeding at light speed, staying up to snuff requires more than just catching a sci-tech segment on CNN. Whether you want your science news slick and served with flair, or raw and dished up assembly-line style, the Web will give you what you crave.

Just as History House (www.historyhouse.com) makes the study of the past lively, Beyond 2000 (www.beyond2000.com) rescues the field of science from high school teachers and the white-coat mafia who hang out in the ivory tower. Based on the popular TV show of the same name, this site has panache aplenty, with articles like “Less Torque, More Action.”

At first glance, all the puns, alliteration, and snazzy graphics send out signals that this may be a fluff site, the online version of the “science report” on your local news—but Beyond 2000 delivers. It points out some amazing developments, such as human skin that never dies and monkeys who use their brain signals to move a robotic arm. Occasionally, the articles have a political edge to them, as when we learn that U.S. military police are road-testing new robocop equipment that lets them “see around corners, through trees, and in the dark.” On the other end of the seriousness scale, sometimes you’ll get answers to age-old puzzlers, such as why the bubbles in Guinness beer head downward or how we can make pig shit smell better.

If you scoff at such popularizations of science, then head to ScienceDaily (www.sciencedaily.com) to mainline a steady dose of unfiltered news releases from the country’s top academic and governmental research institutions. It’s really not as brain-crushing as it sounds—after all, the main point is to get journalists interested enough to write stories about these findings, so jargon is kept to a minimum. Over the course of a few days, you can get the latest skinny on nuclear waste disposal, sudden infant death syndrome, sexual functioning, cancer, climate change, and the link between heavy meals and heart attacks. Did you realize that brain-imaging technology can actually reveal what you’re thinking about, that kissing may spread herpes virus 8 among men, or that, despite the received wisdom to the contrary, most women are fertile much more than one week a month? The headlines are matter-of-fact and the graphics are spartan, but ScienceDaily is the best place to catch science news before it enters the media cycle, if the media even reports on it at all.

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Memo to Turner

It’s been one long nightmare for Sean Dix. In June 1996, after CNN ran a mocking story about his new dental floss device, Dix complained bitterly, but they refused to run a retraction. Over the next few years, he sent over 6000 faxes to CNN headquarters in Atlanta, including its legal department, sports and entertainment desks, and Ted Turner’s executive suite. By last April 18, Dix could not take it anymore.

“It is at this point that I have come to the end of my attempts to deal with you in a rational manner,” Dix faxed CNN that day. “Andrew Jackson once killed a man that insulted him, in cold blood. . . . It is with full knowledge of the law that I’m now telling you that if you do not attempt to make restitution I will attempt to kill Ted Turner, and if he is unreachable in his ivory tower, then I only need kill one CNN employee and it will be on your hands.”

Turner was apparently not amused. The CNN and Time Warner honcho had just separated from Jane Fonda and was dating Bo Derek that month. On April 19, at CNN’s behest, Dix was arrested and locked up in the Atlanta city jail, where he has remained ever since. On December 8, an Atlanta jury found Dix guilty of transmitting a threatening communication in interstate commerce, a federal crime that carries a possible sentence of up to 22 months.

The case gives new meaning to the term powerful media. While Turner played no public role in the drama, he is obviously watching it closely. Turner is a diagnosed manic-depressive whose mood swings were so violent that a former girlfriend called him scary; he has taken Lithium on and off since 1985. So he is is no stranger to the benefits of therapy. But as many are prone to do when confronted with inappropriate behavior, Turner chose to put the heat on Dix rather than steer him into treatment.

It’s not as if Turner hadn’t given Dix notice of his intention to turn him in. Even before April 18, prosecutors say, CNN enlisted an NYPD detective who went to Dix’s residence in New York, and told him to “knock this off,” because “if you keep it up, you’ll get yourself in trouble.” Dix’s response was, according to prosecutors, “Bring it on! That’s what I want.” Soon after, he wrote the fateful words, “Kill Ted Turner.”

A CNN spokesperson declined to comment on the still-pending case, as did Dix’s defense attorney, Michael Kessler. But as the four-day trial drew to an end last week, prosecutors discussed evidence presented in the case and exulted in the guilty verdict.

Dix does not exactly have a criminal past. He used to work as a diamond cutter. The work made his skin tender, and it was painful to wrap floss around his fingers. So he cooked up the idea of attaching floss to small rings, for which he received a patent. After that, he began to pursue the American Dream. He quit his job and set up shop in his mother’s apartment in New York.

Forbes noted his invention in 1995, and by May 1996, he was selling Floss Rings to drugstore chains like CVS and Eckerd. According to a family friend, Dix turned down an offer from Johnson & Johnson to buy the patent because he wanted to retain a portion of the royalties.

Enter Jeanne Moos, a CNN reporter who specializes in the funny and offbeat. She contacted Dix for an interview. But when the resulting story aired in June 1996, it wasn’t the endorsement Dix expected. Instead, Moos interviewed two dentists, who found the Floss Rings process “awkward” and predicted, “This is not going to sweep the nation.” The piece ran for days.

Then the bottom dropped out. According to the April 18 fax, Dix contacted the two dentists, who said they had “panned the product based on CNN’s prompting.” “The resulting fallout was the complete resignation of my national sales force,” Dix claims, “and several months later the loss of distribution at CVS.” He also claims the piece caused a “loss of confidence” in potential investors. Dix compiled his “proof” of inaccuracies. But he could not find a lawyer to sue the network, says the family friend.

In October 1999, Dix told CNN he was going to commit an act of civil disobedience and then showed up at the CNN building in Manhattan, according to prosecutors. Prosecutors say he was arrested after trying to break in; Dix claims he was “thrown through a set of doors and then falsely arrested.” At any rate, the case was dismissed, apparently because the company that owned the building declined to press charges.

Consider Dix’s rationale for the protest and for the final fax. He thought that if he could get CNN to press charges for something—anything!—he would be guaranteed a public hearing of his claims. But last week, as the trial unfolded, there were no reporters in attendance. So much for the publicity value of death threats.

Dr. Park Dietz is a psychiatrist based in Newport Beach, California, who counsels companies on violence prevention. According to Dietz, thousands of cases arise every year in which people harass companies with “inappropriate communications,” though few result in indictments. He says Dix’s claim is not unusual (people often believe that a company has harmed them or ripped them off), but 6000 faxes is extreme (the number of “inappropriate” contacts usually falls between 50 and 300).

Dietz declined to comment on Dix’s mental state. But he says the harassers can exhibit a range of mental disorders, from someone who “merely exaggerates” his suffering to someone “whose claim has no basis in fact.” For example, there are “a fair number of people who claim that chip makers have implanted chips in their brains.”

Dietz says it’s a mistake for a company to press minor charges like stalking or trespass, because those prosecutions rarely succeed. “All that happens is that the subject resents the company all the more and escalates the behavior.” But once the harasser commits a felony, it’s a good idea to prosecute because by sending him to jail or treatment, you can probably stop the unwanted behavior. Nevertheless, he says, “The law offers only blunt instruments for dealing with these situations.”

Dietz says all media companies attract this kind of behavior, especially television, which creates “immediacy and the illusion of intimacy. The more electronic the medium, the more people think they are being persecuted by it.” Perhaps the most famous case of delusions of media persecution was William Tager, who assaulted Dan Rather in 1986 and killed an NBC technician outside the studios of the Today show in 1994. Dietz says Tager believed that “various media were watching him through his television” and putting cameras “in his bedroom and bathroom and car.”

Sean Dix may be deluded about the power of CNN. His product might have flopped anyway. But it’s hard to see the wisdom of putting him in jail. On the other hand, who in his right mind would threaten to kill Ted Turner? In this day of competing media watchdogs, Dix might have gotten more relief by taking his case to the press.


ccotts@villagevoice.com

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Tricks and Treats

OCTOBER 31—After surviving Gore-inspired “flash attacks” over the weekend, Ralph Nader’s campaign is now the target of a propaganda wave. One high-profile Gore partisan this morning was spreading a nasty rumor about the Nader machine. According to the scuttlebutt, Nader operatives had leaked information that the consumer advocate had been secretly offered $12 million—the amount his Green Party would get in federal matching funds if he won 5 percent of the vote next Tuesday—to take a fall against Gore in key states. The whisperer said Nader had refused the money.

Nader’s campaign immediately denied the story. “Unbelievable,” said one spokeperson. Another flatly rejected the rumor and reiterated the candidate’s dedication to staying in the hunt. “I can absolutely assure you Ralph has no intention of dropping out of the race.”

Gore operatives are also trying to resurrect a story dating back to the mid 1970s, which has Nader joining the leaders of Washington public-interest groups to resist efforts to unionize the movement’s employees. At that time, unions themselves were only lukewarm to such organizing efforts, and the one successful union to be formed at the Institute for Policy Studies was broken by the Institute directors Marc Raskin and Dick Barnet. Nader played an insignificant role in that long-ago anti-unioning drive. In fact, in recent years Nader had led the union-backed fight against NAFTA.

The flash attacks appear to tapering off. “The calls are still coming in, but they’ve dropped off somewhat,” said a Nader spokesperson. “I figure they got tired.”

Meanwhile, the attorneys general of both Texas and California are warning vote-swap Web sites—which help Nader backers trade ballots with Gore supporters—that they are treading in dangerous, and possibly illegal, territory. Two of the Web sites reportedly shut down under the threat of prosecution.

Gore’s camp still has plenty of reason to fear Nader’s impact on swing states. A new Rasmussen poll has Nader at 6 percent in California, with Gore leading Bush by 3 percent. That places Nader as a deciding factor there.

The latest Zogby tracking poll has Bush at 45 percent and Gore at 42. ABC has the two candidates tied. Reuters/MSNBC has Bush at 45 percent, Gore at 42. According to The Washington Post, Bush has 47 percent, Gore 46. CNN/USA Today/Gallup shows Bush at 47 and Gore at 44.


On October 31, The Village Voice announced endorsements for the 2000 elections: Ralph Nader for President, Al Gore (a dissent), Hillary Clinton for Senate, and various candidates in local races.

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A Lot of Nerve

It’s all in the decor. In this case, we’re talking stainless steel desks, black space-age chairs, and iMacs. These items are resting on a hardwood floor, freshly polyurethaned, in a SoHo loft on Broadway. If a TV producer conjured a set for a hip web zine, he couldn’t do any better. Of course, the TV version would be an illusion and this is a real office. In the corner sits Rufus Griscom (third from left in photo), the editor and CEO of Nerve.com, and that really is an Adorno tome on his desk, and he really does want to be as helpful as he can for this interview. After all, everything really is happening for Nerve.

Next month, the little-erotica- Web-zine- that-could will transform into a community space and portal, replete with homepage building, e-mail, chat, bulletin boards, and personal ads. In January, Nerve.com plans to debut a print version, sold online, to be followed with distribution in bookstores. Private investors with $10 million have given Nerve a boost, and industry analysts now think the site could be the first adult play to make it as an IPO. And the recently launched German, French, and Spanish versions of the site already bring in a big chunk of the company’s ad revenue. Nerve.com isn’t profitable, but hey, it’s growing. Fast.

All this makes a good story, and Nerve has always courted publicity with uncanny skill, from that first puff on CNN just days after they launched, a scant two years ago— Griscom and then lover Genevieve Field (center in photo) conceiving the site over Chinese food on the floor of their one-bedroom apartment— all the way down to today, when a publicist is on staff to “help” the stories along. Somewhere, though, is an analyst who has taken a look at the mathematical reality.

“Clearly they are going to generate a lot of buzz, but you can’t live on buzz alone,” says Aram Sinnreich, an analyst with Jupiter Communications. ‘‘Nerve has a very limited market, and in order to make money on a limited market you have to offer a lot of services, which is obviously what they are trying to do. But I don’t think there is a big enough market to support them.”

Sinnreich could so easily be wrong. Nerve could be the next Playboy media empire; as president and editorial director Field says, “we’ve been thinking big all along.” All that Nerve has to do is embody the spirit of a new sexual movement, to position itself on the cusp of change the way Playboy did more than 40 years ago. The comparison may appear a touch forced— after all, Hefner threw bashes for the
masses, whereas Nerve holds soirées for the post-gender crowd. But if the parties were raunchier in the ’60s, or if the site seems too studied to be radical, realize that Nerve is as sharp as the straight edge can get before it loses all hope of profitability. No
other zine draws as diverse a crowd of hot writers, from Dennis Cooper to A.M. Homes, although the gems are often by less-known talents, such as a very popular recent piece of reportage by Leif Ueland about a porn star’s 500-man gang bang.

The trouble is that at this point you can’t say whether Nerve is a simulacrum or the real thing, whether all that cool furniture belongs to a next-generation mover and shaker— or to a Web site that’s enjoyed a lot of press and modest financial success by publishing quality photos and prose, but whose future remains limited to a small number of people interested in “literate smut.” Is it a better
story than a business? Perhaps it’s no surprise that the answer depends more on how the zine navigates the waters of big-time media than on whether it convinces Rick Moody to muse a little more about the joys of polysexuality.

These days, it’s Griscom who runs the business end, and he knows, without giving the game away, exactly what a delicate spot Nerve is in. But if anybody can make a highbrow content play work out, well, it’s going to be a guy like 31-year-old Griscom, someone who wears Oxford shirts with crazy-quilt slacks and can talk cash-blend ad deals as easily as postmodernism. He certainly possesses that rare ability to ooze an aphorism (“I believe in running for the purposes of locomotion”) as readily as talk market risk (“our revenue story is very solid”). But is that enough?

Let’s start with basics: you are planning to launch a magazine in January. What is the projected circulation, who is the
audience, and why does a Web site need a magazine? We are exploring a new strategy for launching a print magazine. We are going to create a beautiful physical magazine, start with a small print run, and market it exclusively online. It may be hard to find a copy of the first issue— we are interested in generating grassroots buzz and creating demand without spending a lot of money. We are investing a considerable amount of money in the content, though— top writing, photography, design, paper stock, and so on.

[

Are any sections planned already? We will be doing lengthy reported pieces each month— and we will simultaneously make documentary segments in most cases. Streamed documentary footage will accompany the stories [when they are posted online], and we also use the segments, which will be television quality, as one of the early projects of NerveStudios.

What makes this different from Playboy? Everything. First of all Nerve is predicated on the belief that there is a symmetry of desire between men and women. What is most radical about Nerve on some level is that I think it marks the first time that the male experience and the female experience have been close enough to one another that they could be embodied in a single magazine, and there is also a coherent Nerve sensibility which informs both the photography and writing.

Describe that sensibility. An interest in the humanity of the sexual experience, whether it’s embarrassing, beautiful, peculiar, ugly, sad, what have you. It’s the same kind of curiosity that causes people to look at their feces before flushing.

Charming . . . We are fascinated by our bodies and the things that they do and I think that this is one of the most intriguing frontiers for great writers and photographers.

It sounds like what makes Nerve different is that the editors don’t dictate what makes good sex or interesting sex, whereas in Playboy you have this hierarchical view that feeds the reader one standard of sexual expression. I think the people at Playboy are not genuinely interested in great writing. They have bought some great writing over the years because they could afford it, but it was never central to their mission. Playboy has always been about surface-level pleasure and the God-
given right to that pleasure, and that was radical in the early ’60s.

So do you think it’s radical now to talk about sex that is not pleasurable? Absolutely. I personally have a great interest in bad sex because I think it’s relatively untrodden territory. It’s something people have a hard time talking about, and in fact we are involved in a film project on the subject. But we also have a great interest in documenting near-apocalyptic sexual triumphs.

Apocalyptic sex sounds like Norman Mailer. But are most of your writers macho straight men? Or are they gay men, writing for straight men and women? We have many gay writers, but definitely not a majority. We’ve published a number of pieces by unsensitive guys. Eighty-five percent of our readers describe themselves as straight, but, yeah, I think this is a key point. I think an interest in sexual experiences and preferences that one doesn’t have and doesn’t intend to have is part of this new, late-’90s sensibility. It takes a level of sexual confidence that people haven’t had, en masse, in past decades to want to understand experiences far from one’s own.

You are talking about a kind of voyeurism. Definitely, but more than that a suspension of judgement and a genuine affection for difference.

I think the voyeurism aspect is really key to Nerve, especially when you are talking about having people put up their own sex-centric home pages on your site. Voyeurism online with high-res televideo will be an extraordinary, powerful phenomenon. Tens of billions of dollars will be spent; a large portion of the population will participate at some point.

Everyone has a democratic right to be the star of their own porn film. Is that what you are betting on? Well, I believe everybody has a need to star . . . and therefore they will. Porn itself is underwhelming. I think most people have seen porn and associate it with a kind of post-orgasmic disappointment in themselves and the sexual experience.

So, finally, what makes Nerve different from Salon‘s Urge section is that you give people the venue— now through the reader feedback section, but later through home-page hosting— to express their own sexuality, as opposed to reading about somebody else’s. Well, I think the caliber of our writing is better and the project as a whole is considerably more daring. We are taking risks that they aren’t taking. I am thinking primarily of the photography, but also I think we have less of a concern about offending with the writing. But they definitely have good writers and publish some great material.

Do you think of Nerve as pushing the culture, rather than following? Yes, I do. We have never changed our content for advertisers, or with advertisers in mind.

[

Will blue-chip American advertisers ever associate with Nerve? Absolutely. They are starting to come on board. CBS Sportsline, CD Now, UBid are a few of the larger advertisers we have had in past months. We definitely have more work to do on the advertising front. It’s a gradual process but we think mainstream culture is moving in our direction. I heard Nike has a new ad campaign with nudity; I think many mainstream advertisers in the U.S. will start to move in this direction in the next few years.

In the new Nerve community space, are you going to censor insensitive remarks and hate pages? What about a man who has rape fantasies? We will definitely censor illegal and really revolting stuff, but I think you guide a community more by highlighting material that you like. Emma Taylor, our VP of community development, used to be at Tripod, and removing inappropriate material was one of her responsibilities. The community governs itself to a degree. What’s critical is to let it do so.

I suspect the community will be more interested in the spirit of postings than crossing any particular line. And we have never not published photographs because they were too graphic; we have only not published them because they weren’t interesting enough. We are obviously big believers in free speech over here.

But you are not absolutists about free speech. If you have a few loud people without any subtlety who drive away hundreds of really interesting people, the community isn’t working well.

Are you competition for Tripod? No. I think Tripod and Geocities aren’t cohesive communities with a coherent sensibility. They are highly successful business models. I don’t want to post my life on a business model.

So is Nerve warm and fuzzy? No, it’s decidedly not warm and fuzzy. . . . We are interested in attracting thick-skinned women and men who aren’t afraid of them.

Are you rich yet? No. On paper, I guess, but many a spill between the cup and the lips. I think we are likely to be the first sex-related content company to go public with mainstream backing.

What’s the print run of the magazine? I can’t say at this point. Sixty-five percent of Nerve readers polled said they would pay for a print mag subscription; we have 750,000 different monthly readers right now. . . . I think it’s not unreasonable that we could get to a circulation of a half a million a couple years out if we do it right.

Your relationship [with Genevieve] was a big part of the initial press coverage. The media oozed over this
“labor of love” and couple thang. Now you guys have split. Does that parallel Nerve‘s growth from a small-time, closely-held baby project? [Long pause] The story had pretty much shifted from being about us to being about the company in the last year, which is nice. There is nothing more powerful than love, but an erupting, pre-IPO Internet company that actually stands for something you believe in is a close second.

machineage@villagevoice.com

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Eyes Wide Shut

If anyone needs another lesson about the relative value of human life in a celebrity culture, you don’t have to look any further than a hill in Central Park. That’s where 39-year-old Susan Fuchs was found last Thursday morning, on a scrubby west side knoll. Fuchs was slain alongside the shopping bags that held most of her worldly possessions, her pants and underwear torn off, her head bashed in and haloed with blood. She’d been dead perhaps eight hours. That’s a guess gauged according to accounts of a neighborhood woman, who had no problem being quoted to the effect that she’d been disturbed by a “cacophony of screams” in the park at 2 a.m., followed by silence. Afterward this good samaritan closed her window and went to bed.

The body was found at 11 a.m. by a stroller, who alerted a Parks Enforcement Patrol officer, who alerted one of the crackerjack cops assigned to the Central Park precinct. This is the same precinct, you may recall, whose personnel once failed to respond to numerous reports from passersby of a menacing teenage gang roaming the park after dark,
fully an hour before certain members of this gang waylaid and beat a woman jogger nearly to death. Two members of that same highly skilled police unit later sat unawares in an idling patrol car two minutes away from the glade where the woman’s beaten body had been dumped— face down, her arms tied behind her back with her jogging bra. The fact that the Central Park jogger survived owes a lot to two drunk guys who happened across her as they stumbled home.

You may also have some recollection of the fine preventive police work carried out in 1995, when Maria Isabel Monteiro Alves was pulled off a path in Central Park while jogging and bludgeoned to death. Although the Fuchs and Alves murders were separated by six years, they occurred just yards apart in an area that remains, in some ways, as wild as it was when the park was designed. Maps call it the Great Hill. It’s well known to rock climbers, who surreptitiously go bouldering on its high schist outcrops. It’s well known to the homeless who loiter and camp out in the relative
obscurity of its untraveled paths.

The body, as I say, was discovered at 11 in the morning.

At about this time, the obscenely bloated ranks of the media were deployed along the Eastern seaboard to cover a spectacle whose intrinsic meaning was negligible, except if you used it as a mirror for some scary truths about our emotionally hollow age. I’d been drawn to this orgy myself, equally horrified and snake-fascinated by an outpouring of “grief” over some apparently genial and fantastically well-connected young rich people.

I’d been to 20 N. Moore Street and watched the throngs of “mourners” making instant cathexis for the cameras, “identifying” with the young “victims” as avatars of Camelot cut down in their prime, a perfect couple who embodied our hopes and dreams, symbols of America’s longing for nobility, etc. (As Gore
Vidal once said somewhere, Americans will do almost anything to avoid noticing the existence of a ruling class.)

I’d watched as some weird folks in white saris arrived in Tribeca and placed blue daisies on the John and Carolyn altar, as though making puja to their gods, before starting a spooky chant of “JohnjohnJohnjohnJohnjohn KennedykennedyKennedy.” I’d seen little Jon Benet clones being pimped by their mommies, shedding crocodile tears first for Extra!, then for Australian broadcasting, then for CNN. I’d ogled the school group in satin playing violin for the cameras, and the savvy Los Angeles gospel troupe that proceeded to grab what one hapless WBLS radio personality announced was fulfillment of “Andy Griffith’s prediction that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes.” (How ’bout that one, Aunt Bea?)

I’d seen the news hyenas do live feeds from outside the Catholic church where Jacqueline Onassis once worshiped; where the iron fence was now upholstered with
floral tributes and heartfelt notes condoling people the writers had never met (“Love
You Alwayz” read one missive, addressed
to John Kennedy in heaven). I joined the
rest of the gawpers on Madison Avenue, craning for a view of 350 guests gathered for a “private,” invitation-only service at which the deceased were, as it turns out, upstaged by the First Fibber.

By the morning of the Kennedy/Bessette memorial service, Clinton had already turned on his notorious waterworks for the networks and proved definitively that there’s nothing about which he won’t prevaricate. (Regarding the president’s televised claim that young Kennedy’s dinner at the White House was his first since John F. Kennedy was incumbent, there was unfortunate contradictory evidence in the presidential archives: Jackie and John Jr. had already visited at least once, with that other notorious liar, Tricky Dick.)

And, I have to admit it, I’d watched
a lot of CNN. I watched with special interest on the day a passerby found Susan Fuchs’s body in the woods because, as it happened,
I’d been returning from a reporting gig in Harlem when I came upon that grisly
scene around 11:45. I was shocked by what little I could make out (“They said her
head was bashed in,” a bystander, Mayra Morel, told me. “This area, there’s a lot of crackheads sleeping inside. Even the police won’t go”), not least because I often use the park, those paths, that hill.

In what could indulgently be termed my naïveté, I’d imagined that NY 1, at least, would interrupt blanket coverage of Coast Guard cutters ferrying assorted Kennedys, Smiths, and Shrivers to and from Woods Hole (an image right up there with the Yule log for soporific effect). I kept expecting someone to mention the fact that there’d been an incredibly brutal killing in the middle of the city, in the jewel of our urban parks system, in a place about the size of Monaco— one that, if you believe Rudy Giuliani, is just as safe.

It didn’t happen. Nobody broke in with a report. Half a day elapsed before there was any television coverage of Fuchs’s murder. And even then the stories— which you might imagine would evoke the shame of Kitty Genovese (what kind of place do we inhabit where your reaction to hearing bloodcurdling cries is to pull the window shut?), or the fact that three of the more brutal park attacks in recent memory took place within a five-minute
radius of one another— chose to focus on the fact that murder statistics have dropped 75 percent over the past six years.

Some people matter. Others do not. No need to stop the presses for that bit of news. But a week into the ratings-and-circulation carnival attending the deaths of three people few had met, and that most were supposed to have “loved,” a nobody with a history of mental illness and a family that not many of us will ever encounter had her skull smashed in the middle of Manhattan. It’s too much to suggest that nobody cared. But it does say something about the irremediable grotesquerie of a 24-hour news cycle that television held off the Fuchs murder for six hours in favor of a celebrity ash dump, while the dailies played it later, inside and small.

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Sugar High

Jennifer Lopez has her own back, movie star magnetism, B+ beats, una buena onda to surf, and a lousy voice—which I find to be a stumbling block in bubblegum bounce. Compare to Ophélie Winter, who has tighter songs and a richer voice and is a supermodel. So why isn’t she famous?

She is—in France, where I’m writing from. Her last single, Je marche à l’envers, walked back ward through Natalie Merchant’s “Carnival,” spilled the whine and doubled the hooks, and made noise all over MTV Europe with a space-age bachelorette video avec ruby fright wig. But when she rerecorded the song in English with the title ‘Spy,” shhhh. Sony didn’t even release it in the States. Possible reasons for the trans-Atlantic whiff: (1) Not actually Swedish, though album was recorded in Stockholm per European Union’s Pop Proviso of 1997. (2) Sony waiting for French-
American demographic to show some muscle before sending in Gallic glamour queens. (3) When you’ve got faux chanteuses like April March, who needs actual French singers? (4) Market already saturated with Shakespeare crap. (5) New Janet-es que single, “Je cours,” more geared to dancefloor, where accents are still le sexy. Dear Sony: voulez-vous to rock that shit, please?

Upmarket from Ophélie, the world capital of discopop fronts Daft Punk and Stardust and of course Air. You loved “Sexy Boy” cuz it was straight outta Gainsbourg, a liber-teen anthem with its eyebrows arched clear to the moon. But “Kelly Watch the Stars” wants to take you higher. The Moog Cookbook mix (available on the “All I Need” single) is the floorshakinest piece of pocket lint the world dug up during the last year, a breath taker clear to the sampled “whooooooo!”

But Frenchy don’t rock—at least, not enough to light up an American radio. After four decades, voilà: not a single band to chill on the playlist with Golden Earring, much less the Scorpions, the Sex Pistols, or Roxette. May be because they were trying actual revolutions; in ’68, the first punks went right past guitars to police cars on fire. Maybe, per my local analysts MoxleynEvans, theres a lack of sufficient friction between the high and low (meaning both the proles and the bourgeoisie knock off early for a glass of wine). Or maybe the nations still in recovery from its absurdist WW II performance, known in these parts as the funny war. So it was particularly hilarious when Courtney Love—still iconic June 22 at La Zenith—
berated the stage-jumping efforts of les riot girls nouvelles. “Show me why you won the war!” As Louis Malle’s wife would’ve said, you could’ve heard a pin drop. Then the most Marie Antoinettesque rock star ever promised a stupid love song to home. As everyone clenched their fists or perhaps teeth for “Celebrity Skin,” Hole dropped into a lazy, happy cover of “Paradise City” that swore the revolution was over, that it was all the same pop now. And the crowd knew the words better than the band and drowned them out gleefully and so it was that populist ecstasy was recovered once more and it did not feel like the first time but maybe the last time I don’t know.

Meanwhile, Lisa Lopes is the punkest rocker on French radio. She’s unpretty on the inside and proud of it, man; she’d set a police car on fire on the second date. TLC’s “I’m Good at Being Bad” is the only song on their current record that is all hers; “What you gonna do with a bitch like me?” is Left Eye’s question no matter who’s singing, and it’s spelled “here we are now entertain us.” From a band that already brought the best Prince song of the decade (“Waterfalls”), this is the song Nirvana would’ve made if they were still on the scene as mega-mega soul sisters, exploding the problem-solving system of verse/chorus into a raw dialectic of soft/hard and slamming back’n’forth between them like the entire bipolar generation’s lithium was in bloom.

On Paris hip-hop radio they started playing “PE 2000,” Puffy’s cover of “Public Enemy No. 1,” the day after he previewed it in New York. Makes you wanna throw your hands in the air—not waving, drowning. In a way there’s something sublime about watching his tiny brain churning out its equal signs: “Hey, you hate me now just like you hated Chuck D. Sample criminal, race radical—why split hairs? Chuck was all ‘rap is the black person’s CNN’; I’m all Nick at Nite. Vive la revolution!” But all history comes down to this: when PE re corded the original, they were more or less nobodies, with all the limits and options that implies. Sean Combs is out wearing whites in the Hamptons, and to get there he’s sucked enough dick it’s hard to imagine he’s about to start biting.

The Puffalo Soldier striking a rebel pose with his Schlock 9mm isn’t irony quite yet; just levity. And canny at that: tilting your cred against vintage Public Enemy is a sucker’s game and Puffy knows it; he’s losing the battle to win the war. As long as you think of him as a musical Furbie whose worst crime is maybe slugging some industry type, Puff is a happy camper: better a buffoon than an actual criminal. But time doesn’t quite fade away, and those kids from his near-forgotten firetrap rent party are still real dead. Now that’s
ironic, Alanis.

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Everyone’s a Critic

This is the 400th or so media column I have written for the Voice; it is also, absent unforeseen circumstances, the last.


After eight-and-a-half years here, I am leaving to become the New York bureau chief for The Industry Standard, a weekly magazine covering the Internet business. Writing a weekly press column for the Voice is a joyful privilege, but also a complicated one. In large part because I inherited Press Clips from a series of brilliant but distinct journalists, this 25-year-old column has amassed multiple expectations in different camps. There is an audience that wants an umpire for the wars–declared and undeclared–among the New York dailies; an audience that expects a supplement to mainstream media’s lousy coverage of international affairs; an audience that sees media criticism as a tool of left advocacy, which includes coverage of left-alternative media; an audience that wants holes poked in national media; and an audience that craves reporting and gossip on media business and culture.


Serving all readers in any given column is nearly impossible–which is to say that writing Press Clips guarantees that a lot of people, and not just those it targets, are regularly dissatisfied with it. That’s fine: being hectored by readers who think the column falls short in whatever respect keeps me alert and brings in good items. Wordsworth’s vision was that everyone could be a poet; among my readers, it seems everyone wants to be a critic.


If I seem heavily focused on the kaleidoscope of reader expectations, it’s because I think that whatever consensus once existed on the mission of this column has cracked. There are times when I wonder whether the model of a weekly column of left media criticism is outdated.


Partly this doubt arises from the erosion and fragmentation of the left itself. When I began working here in 1990, I believed–perhaps naively–that a majority of Voice readers shared a roughly uniform point of view on most political questions, local, national, and even international. From that point of view flowed assumptions about mainstream media (that corporate ownership acts as a de facto censor on vital topics, that the lives of powerless people are routinely ignored or distorted, etc.) which constituted a workable filter for a weekly column.


Those assumptions, while still plausible, are now far from airtight. I don’t know anymore how completely the Press Clips audience identifies with the left; those who do no longer necessarily share a knowledge or interest base, let alone a common perspective. At one time, it was reasonable to presume that enough Voice readers followed issues in Central America to allow an item about distorted media treatment of Nicaragua to speak for itself. But in the late ’90s, there are far fewer comparable left issues; you can’t write about, say, coverage of Burma if a sizable majority of readers haven’t been through the basics–they will simply turn the page.


Of course, that example also illustrates the tumultuous changes in the media landscape over the last decade. A good press critic will seek to enlighten readers about unfamiliar material; still, the job differs from that of film, theater, or book critics in that we mostly write about stories that readers have already seen or can reasonably be expected to know about.


That makes this column dependent not only on how the media performs, but what readers actually see. Here, too, lies an eroded consensus: the media habits of the Voice audience are, I believe, dramatically different from what they were a generation ago. The late Geoffrey Stokes, who wrote this column from 1984 to 1989, almost never went a week without mentioning some flare-up at one or more of the city’s tabloids. That was his world, and the column assumed it was yours, too. Maybe it was: the tabs had hundreds of thousands more readers then than they do now, and they were also the best at covering the gurgling, sexy metro scandals of the time: Koch administration corruption, the PVB and Donald Manes, Wedtech.


But Stokes’s universe has been altered, perhaps forever. Most of my closest friends do not seriously follow city politics; a few years ago they stopped even feeling guilty about it. The closing of New York Newsday in 1995, the shriveled readership of both the News and Post, the self-interest of politically corrupt owners that makes any Spice Girls development a bigger tabloid story than the governor’s race–all of these are media symptoms of the suburbanization of the mind that defines the Giuliani era. Local political involvement is now perceived not as a civic obligation but as a kind of hobby, something relegated to niche, rather than mass, media.


This column, under Doug Ireland and myself, has struggled with that shift, as has much of the Voice. Someone trying to write an NYC-focused version of Press Clips today would spend a lot of time critiquing New York 1 and the Observer, both places, besides the Voice, where some of the deepest metro coverage appears today. But with Voice circulation now ballooned since the paper went free in Manhattan, the audiences of those outfits make up a small minority of ours. Does it make sense to go full blazes after a story that most Voice readers did not see initially and probably never will? In some instances, sure–but that’s not a strong foundation for a regular column.


For that and related reasons, Voice editor Don Forst believes Press Clips should be a creature of strong original media reporting, rather than criticism or commentary. I largely concur, though I’ve tried to create a hybrid breed.


Theoretically, a fully functioning Internet would alleviate some of this mission creep. Through hypertext links, Press Clips could provide instant access to whatever story or broadcast was being written about. In such a version, it would probably make sense to publish items several times a week–as close to a real-time reaction as possible–and to invite instantaneous reader response; an edited version of the whole mix could then be published weekly in the paper. This is the model used by several columns in Slate.


That vision is, however, several years away from being realized–and I say that’s a good thing. Because for the time being, the old-fashioned, weekly-newspaper model helps ensure that the Voice stays in touch with the New Yorkers who need it most–the ones without audio players on their PCs, maybe even the ones without home phone lines.


After all, it’s not as if there’s a shortage of media reporting and coverage for the elite; on the contrary, this decade has witnessed an absolute explosion of the genre. Remember that in 1990, New York Times media reporting was tame, minimal, and late; the Post had not yet ceded almost its entire business section over to media stories; the Observer and New York Press carried media stories, but mere trickles of what they do today; Ed Diamond’s New York work was spotty and infrequent; there was no CNN Reliable Sources, no NPR On the Media, no Spin Cycle on the bestseller list, and certainly no Brill’s Content.


So the amount of media coverage and commentary has expanded (probably even more than the audience for it–those programs and publications have a lot of overlapping consumers). And yet, very little of that newfound attention raises questions beyond the coverage of individual stories; very little examines politics beyond the next election; very little advocates any change at all, in media or anywhere else.


This leaves room for a truly alternative press column. Two weeks ago, the Observer labeled me “the city’s most prominent leftist media critic.” That’s awfully nice, but the fact is that very few are vying for the title. We can bemoan the lack of competition as an index of the left’s decline, or we can take advantage of it. The Voice can make this column a depoliticized mirror of press coverage available elsewhere, and probably get a scoop now and again. Or it can assert its uniqueness–for political purposes, yes, but also because there’s a genuine market there, a thirst for media writing that engages with the real world outside media. Maybe we shouldn’t assume our readers share progressive politics, but we ought to write as if we believe they can be persuaded.


That’s it. To my Voice colleagues, past and present; to my readers; to the countless sources, snitches, spies, and soul mates–I can’t name names, but you know who you are–I leave my deepest, most heartfelt thanks. I couldn’t have done it without you, and wouldn’t have wanted to.


For the next several weeks, Press Clips will be written by Andrew Hsiao, who has deftly edited the column for many months. To him and to the column’s future stewards I leave a few dusty files, and Gramsci’s oft-repeated but permanently relevant watchwords: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

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One Man’s Private Jihad

He became a potentially hostile blip on the U.S. intelligence radar screen as early as 1991, when he arrived in Sudan. He said he had come to build roads, but according to a former Sudanese intelligence agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity, he also set up pan-Islamist camps where recruits from countries like Bosnia, Chechnya, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Somalia were given military training.

His blip intensified in the early 1990s, when his name came up in the international manhunt for Mir Aimal Kansi, the Pakistani who shot up the CIA’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters. It grew stronger still in 1996, during the probe of the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. He would call the perpetrators of that act “heroes.”

Though both CNN and ABC have interviewed him in the past 17 months, it’s only in the wake of the August 7 East African embassy bombings that the name Osama Bin Ladin has become widely known to Americans. In the worldwide Muslim community, however, Bin Ladin has been a controversial figure for several years. Some, like his followers, now venerate him with the title “sheik,” even though he is not a cleric. Others, like Salah Obdidallah of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, consider him a criminal who kills and “hides behind a beautiful religion.” (The New York office of the FBI tends toward Obdidallah’s view; according to reports, Gotham-based agents are arguing they should direct the Kenya and Tanzania cases based on substantial but uncorroborated information tying Bin Ladin to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing as well as the thwarted plan to blow up other city buildings and tunnels.)

Though the government and the fourth estate have a notorious history of jumping the gun when it comes to blaming “Middle East radicals” for big explosions (recall Oklahoma City and TWA Flight 800), fingering Bin Ladin for a role in the embassy bombings is by no means unreasonable–and not just because one of the reportedly confessed bombers has admitted to being a follower. Not only does Bin Ladin have the motive, means, and opportunity, but in light of his personal jihad, the bombings are thoroughly understandable. While Bin Ladin is neither a mainstream Muslim nor the paragon of sanity (one consulting CIA psychologist’s assessment holds that he is a “malignant narcissist” who views people as objects either to be killed or protected), if he is responsible for the bombings, it’s imperative, Middle East experts say, that his actions and motivations be examined not just in terms of a terrorist threat, but in the context of current Arabian politics, U.S. foreign policy, and Islamic theology.

“If this was done by Bin Ladin–who is definitely a fringe character–part of what we should be focusing on is what the bombings are reflective of in the Islamic world vis-à-vis the U.S. right now,” says Sam Husseini, former spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “I think these bombings will cost him many people’s sympathies. But before August 7, I think he was beginning to achieve folk-hero status in some parts of the Middle East, because he’s doing what no one else is–standing up to the U.S. over some very legitimate grievances.” And the fact that Bin Ladin has successfully stood up to and beat another superpower–the USSR, in Afghanistan–gives him a resolve not necessarily found in other terrorists.

One cannot understand Bin Ladin without understanding his relationship to his native Saudi Arabia–arguably the center of a concentric circle of Islamist angst. In various interviews, Bin Ladin has described himself not as a terrorist, but as a defender of the true faith against a corrupt Saudi monarchy that has committed sacrilege by allowing an (infidel) U.S. army presence in sacred Muslim land. “After the Americans entered the Holy Land, many emotions were roused in the Muslim world–more than we have seen before,” Bin Ladin recently told ABC News. Indeed, it has not been lost on terrorist experts–and Bin Ladin watchers in particular–that the bombings came on the anniversary of the first U.S. Desert Shield troop deployment inside Saudi Arabia.

While many secular Saudis don’t necessarily share Bin Ladin’s angry zeal, they do simmer with resentment at the Saudi elite’s hypocrisy and the American presence, says Scott Armstrong, a national security expert who has conversed with figures sympathetic to Bin Ladin. And they have a point. Asone former State Department foreign service officer candidly characterized the situation in a 1996 interview, “The role of the U.S. military presence there is to make sure the Saudis can defend themselves in a pinch, but still be reliant on us for real defense.[Saudi Arabia] is a strategic position we don’t want to withdraw from.” The officer also said that, despite public pronouncements, many Saudi elites privately flout Islamic rules against indulging in Western vices such as alcohol and Baywatch.

To Bin Ladin this amounts to a sellout and blasphemy by the Saudi upper crust. That same ruling class, in one of the many ironies of Bin Ladin’s life, have indirectly financed his terrorist operations. The 17th of 52 children sired by Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest construction magnate, Osama controls $250 million of the $5 billion Bin Ladin family kitty–money made largely by building homes, offices, and mosques for the House of Saud. But since the age of 16, when he became involved with radical religious groups, Bin Ladin has been less interested in making money than using it in defense of his concept of Islam.

Truly radicalized by the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, Bin Ladin, then 22, became one of the early founders and financiers of what became the Mujahadeen, the Afghan rebellion. Not only did he build safe houses, roads, and tunnel complexes for these insurgents, but he bankrolled training camps and arms purchases. And he did it all alongside another group pursuing its own jihad against the Soviets–the Central Intelligence Agency, which is now charged with tracking him down.

Not content to merely be an underwriter of the resistance, Bin Ladin also fought in some particularly fierce battles, including the siege of Jalabad, which marked the end for the Soviets in Afghanistan. This was, for Bin Ladin, a defining and empowering moment, which cements his faith to this day. As he told CNN, it destroyed “the myth” of the invincible superpower.

Having helped vanquish the Soviet colossus, he returned home a celebrated hero and leader of the opposition movement to the House of Saud, charging the regime with moral turpitude. But when the Saudis allowed U.S. troops to deploy in the land of the Two Most Holy Places–Mecca and Medina–Bin Ladin abandoned Saudi Arabia for a more like-minded country: Sudan, where the radical National Islamic Front (NIF) had taken control in 1989.

Even before he moved to Sudan, Bin Ladin was already backing the NIF. In 1990, he arranged for hundreds of Mujahadeen veterans to travel to Sudan in order to fight alongside the NIF against non-Muslim guerrillas. According to an ex-Sudanese intelligence agent who knew Bin Ladin, hundreds more came over in the next few years. Many became instructors at training camps he financed. During his five years in Sudan, Bin Ladin’s camps trained hundreds of recruits from places like Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Somalia. The course of instruction, says the ex-agent, focused on three major areas. One was the fabrication of travel documents. The second was low-tech covert communications–from basic encryption to use of invisible ink. In light of recent events, however, it is the third area that may be most interesting: the use of small arms and explosives.

According to the ex-agent, Bin Ladin dropped $15 million on one shipment of Chinese and Iranian arms–as well as explosives from Czechoslovakia, most likely Semtex. While several terrorist outfits have access to the plastic explosive, which is believed to have been used in the embassy bombings, Bin Ladin was much more likely to use it because of his multinational intelligence network. According to the ex-agent, while in Sudan, Bin Ladin set up an “advisory council” of at least 43 separate Islamist groups.Many of them are active worldwide, and Bin Ladin admitted on CNN that he has sent Islamist combatants to places as far-flung as Bosnia and Tajikistan.

During his years in Sudan, the government came under increased international criticism and pressure. By 1996 the U.S. was indirectly backing anti-Muslim rebels in the southern and eastern parts of the country. The Clinton administration also pressured Sudan to expel Bin Ladin. But instead of couching its criticism of Sudan in terms of its human rights record, which is reviled the world over, the U.S.’s approach reinforced Bin Ladin’s view that it was gunning for Islam.

At about the same time the Saudi government started to bring its financial and political power to bear on the Sudanese NIF to at least rein Bin Ladin in, if not expel him. “When they insisted initially that I should keep my mouth shut, I decided to look for a land in which I can breathe a pure, free air to perform my duty in enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong,” Bin Ladin told CNN last year. His destination: his old stomping grounds in Afghanistan, now controlled by the ultra-conservative Taliban. He remains holed-up there to this day, still directing various Islamist military activities.

In interviews with both Arabic- and English-speaking journalists, Bin Ladin has often cited the U.S. approach to Sudan as an example of the assault on global Islam–a situation, he says, that justifies his sending followers to fight in such far-flung places as Chechnya, Bosnia, and Somalia. He also frequently condemns the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq, as well as U.S. support of Israel. “His main focus is Saudi Arabia, but he doesn’t have enough Saudis or Afghans to accomplish what he wants,” says Armstrong. “He wants to see Islamist states left alone to be Islamist states. And within the Islamist world, he’s willing to join in any coalitions to get critical mass.”

The extent of his involvement, however, varies, and just how active a role he takes in certain actions isn’t entirely clear. In the case of a 1995 Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, bombing–in which five American servicemen were killed–a federal grand jury in Manhattan continues to probe his suspected role. And he was never indicted in the World Trade Center bombing, though several current and former intelligence officials indicate they strongly suspect he had some connection.One of the convicted bombers, for instance, fled to Pakistan after the incident, where he hid out in a house for Islamist radicals that Bin Ladin had funded. Additionally, Bin Ladin and Wali Khan, the convicted mastermind of the bombing, are “good friends” according to Bin Ladin, who fought alongside Khan in Afghanistan.

As far as other actions are concerned, “Someone might suggest something and Bin Ladin might say, ‘yeah,’ ” says a former CIA Middle East analyst. “A lot of these [terrorist acts] are cooked up ad hoc. And while I believe some of Bin Ladin’s communications have been intercepted, part of what makes him so dangerous is that he’s so low-tech and his people are so scattered. Communications for the planning of this were probably innocuous channels–letters, innocuous-sounding phone calls from relatives’ houses.”

The apparent confession in the embassy bombings appears to have clarified things considerably, however. According to Monday’s Washington Post, Mohammed Sadiq Howaida–picked up for using a phony passport on a flight in from Kenya–has not only confessed to a role in the bombing, but has told authorities he was acting for Bin Ladin. Larry Barcella, an ex­assistant U.S. attorney who specialized in terrorist cases, predicts relatively quick indictments for Bin Ladin and his associates.

There is, however, the issue of apprehending Bin Ladin, whose remote location in Taliban territory does not lend itself to easy warrant service. In the meantime, national security expert Armstrong offers a suggestion: “The CIA might do better to figure out what the U.S. could do to support our friends without making regimes so ostentatiously corrupt that they end up giving credence to Bin Ladin.”

Research: Brooke Stroud, Jennifer Del Medico

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Whose ‘Talking’?

As Linda Tripp’s scheduled grand jury testimony swirls through the press this week, you’ll be reading more about the notorious “talking points” that were supposedly drafted for Tripp.

The talking points you’ve read, however, depend entirely on where you read them. Arecently completed academic analysis found that as many as 10 different versions of the infamous memo have been published by seven national news outlets.

Moreover, the Voice has confirmed that at least three of those organizations altered the “talking points” document, even while presenting it as the genuine article. Following Voice inquiries last week, U.S. News&World Report declared it is now “probing” the origin of its memo.

Each of the seven media outfits that has provided an extended version of the talking points–ABC News, NBC News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Newsweek, and U.S. News Online–claims to possess a copy of the document that Lewinsky reportedly gave to Tripp while driving her home from work on January 14.

Yet almost every news organization’s rendition of the document is different; a few outfits have even put out more than one version. Sometimes the discrepancies are small grammatical or stylistic variations; sometimes the meaning of sentences changes depending on which version one reads. Sometimes they’re inexplicable: in U.S. NewsOnline‘s “talking points,” a few paragraphs appear in a different order from every other published version.

But the question is: if reporters simply have copies of the same document, why would there be any discrepancies at all?

There are several possible explanations, according to Willard Fox and John Gillis, both of the University of Southwest Louisiana. One answer is that the document might be a compilation “written” by more than one person at different times; Fox and Gillis suggest it was “most likely drafted by three people.”

This theory would account for some of the quirks. In the fullest version of the document–which can now be found at both www.nytimes.com and www.washingtonpost.com –the final section essentially repeats the first section, except that it switches from the second person to the first person. For example, the sentence “You and Kathleen [Willey] were friends” becomes “Kathleen and I were friends.”

Fox and Gillis say this repetition suggests “that the first [section] was block copied on a word processor and pasted below in a tentative attempt at actually creating an affidavit.” If true, this suggests the published document came through Tripp and was changed by her–which is at odds with published accounts of the Lewinsky-to-Tripp-to-Starr transmission.

Aside from Fox and Gillis’s examination, the most exhaustive attempt to get to the bottom of the talking points was Philip Weiss’s June 15 New York Observer piece; he concluded that White House counsel Bruce Lindsey had written them.

Weiss’s thesis, however, doesn’t square with a portion of the “talking points” he ignored (Weiss did not return a phone message). Part of the middle section uses a tone markedly different from the legalisms that dominate the beginning: “By the way, remember how I said there was someone else that I knew about. Well, she turned out to be this huge liar. I found out she left the WH because she was stalking the P or something like that. Well, at least that gets me out of another scandal I know about.”

Here’s USA Today‘s take: “This paragraph appears to suggest to Tripp what she should tell lawyers in the [Paula] Jones case if she is asked about Lewinsky’s alleged sexual relationship with Clinton.”

Fox and Gillis have a much more persuasive explanation: this voice is not that of an advising lawyer, but is Tripp herself. The paragraph is tacked on to the bottom of the first legalistic portion of the document, as if it were the tag at the end of an e-mail. This, in turn, suggests that the document went through an initial drafting attorney, Lewinsky, Tripp, and someone Tripp sent it to (my gut says Lucianne Goldberg). With all those hands on it, it could easily have been altered, which would then explain why journalists might have different versions.

Indeed, Newsweek‘s February 2 edition published a typewritten page that seemed to be presented as the whole thing–except that it didn’t contain some of the portions that Newsweek‘s Michael Isikoff cited. To Fox and Gillis, that discrepancy implies that Newsweek was working from two different versions of the memo.

Newsweek denies this. Washington bureau chief Ann McDaniel told the Voice that the illustration was “a reprint of selected portions of the talking points,” though it was not marked as having been altered in any way. In this editing, the magazine says it “inadvertently” inserted a word into the graphic version’s first line. Newsweek says the document was “edited for space”–a shaky explanation, given that the magazine devoted more room that week to the Lewinsky story than it has to any topic since the Gulf War.

Newsweek‘s graphic version, for example, omits a sentence that appears to refer to Tripp’s erstwhile attorney Kirby Behre by his first name. The familiarity suggests that a portion might have been written by one of Tripp’s allies, thereby poking holes in Newsweek‘s report that the document passed simply from Lewinsky to Tripp to Starr’s office. (Last week, Newsweek stood by that account.)

The U.S. News version is also hard to explain. It is presented on the Web site as “the text of a document, grammatical errors included,” that Lewinsky gave to Tripp. One sentence–“You have never observed the President behaving inappropriately with anybody”–appears four paragraphs from the bottom, whereas in most other versions it is the last sentence. Similarly, the last sentence in the U.S. News version appears in the middle of most other versions.

U.S. News associate editor Julian Barnes, who handled much of the weekly’s early Lewinsky coverage, said U.S. News had received what it believed to be an authentic copy of the memo “from an independent, non-media source,” and that discrepancies between its version and other versions “are clearly not typos.”

“It’s interesting enough that we are probing deeper,” Barnes said.

ABC’s Web site contains two versions with discrepancies that include using a different word in the same sentence. Despite repeated requests, ABC News failed to provide an explanation.

The Fox and Gillis report and supporting documents can be found at www.ucs.usl.edu/~jfg0701/ essays/tripp.html.

Laos-ed Up?

It was intended as an exercise in Time Warner synergy. But the nerve-gas-in-Laos story broadcast and published in early June by NewsStand: CNN & Time may have bombed synergy back to the Stone Age.

After loud and repeated attacks from several quarters–including the resignation of CNN’s military adviser–the supposed sister organizations are now going back to see if they left something important out of their reports that in 1970 a U.S. unit used sarin gas against suspected American defectors.

Last week, CNN announced that it had hired attorney Floyd Abrams to conduct its probe; Time is using its Pentagon reporter Mark Thompson.

Officially, the two organizations say they “plan to keep reporting the story.” But unofficially, journalists feel they’re investigating each other. At Time, staffers gripe that CNN doesn’t know how to do investigative journalism. At CNN, they complain about Time‘s arrogance, pissed off that Time staffers will be poring over work both sides were meant to share.

The stakes are highest for April Oliver–the CNN producer responsible for the segment–and for CNN president Rick Kaplan. CNN has been struggling with ratings-dissipation for more than a year, and if Kaplan’s much-hyped newsmagazine was launched with a bogus story, there will be significant pressure for him to go. (The right-wing monitor group Accuracy in Media has already called for Kaplan’s resignation if the network proves to have flubbed the story.)

Some argue that CNN made a bizarre choice by using attorneys for its investigation. Abrams is a respected First Amendment lawyer, but that doesn’t necessarily give him the skills to reinvestigate a story that has some 200 sources, or make a sound judgment on producers’ decisions. Tapping Abrams, says one CNN staffer, “is like asking your babysitter which nursing home you should put your parents in. They’re just very different roles.” Abrams did not return a call for comment.

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  • An assistant to former Wired editor and publisher Louis Rossetto phoned last week to say that Rossetto does not accept my characterization of him as a “onetime pornographer” (“Estimated Prophets,” June 9). Rossetto’s book Ultimate Porno is not, his assistant explained, a book of ultimate porno; it is a chronicle of the making of a pornographic film. Hope this clears it up. . . .
  • Can Mort Zuckerman go an entire year without dumping the top editor at one of his publications? In his parting speech to U.S. News&World Report staffers Monday morning, James Fallows–who has been replaced by Stephen Smith from National Journal–made an interesting claim about the magazine’s business side: “If a single advertiser, General Motors, had not radically changed its advertising plans this year (strongly favoring TV over print) . . . we would have had more pages in the first quarter of this year than ever before.” But he left no doubt that “owner-editor interaction” was his main problem. Having pledged to many journalists he recruited that he would stay for three years, Fallows apologized for leaving in under two: “If the choice were mine I would not be leaving right now. The choice is not mine .”Research: Leila Abboud