Keith Olbermann devoted a good deal of time on his show tonight to our reporting on Erich "Mancow" Muller's fake waterboarding escapade. He says we're conspiracy theorists. We never said anybody conspired with anybody to do anything, but his puzzling, false, and hysterically paranoid response makes us wonder.
Muller is a shock jock who made his name by pulling stunts like shutting down traffic on San Francisco's Bay Bridge with his station's news van and having his sidekick get a haircut on the asphalt, making prank calls to Chinese restaurants and asking whether they make their Egg Foo Yung with dog or cat meat, saying "nigger" on the air, and making repeated calls to the hair salon next to his studio and insinuating that the male owner is a gay.
Seven days ago, after a week of on air hype, Muller—who has always denied that waterboarding was torture—purported to undergo the procedure on the air, after which he dramatically announced that he had changed his mind about it. This would have probably gone largely unnoticed except for the fact that Keith Olbermann designated him as the leading critic of torture.
So irresistable was the idea of a nominal conservative coming over to Olbermann's side of the torture debate (the right side, we might add) that even after we reported that Muller's stunt was at best a half-assed spectacle that didn't come close to the actual conditions that waterboard victims experience and at worst a deliberate con job designed to get publicity, Olbermann double-downed and blamed us for ruining his fun. Based on the evidence we've gathered, and Olbermann and Muller's confusing and contradictory responses, we're increasingly convinced that Muller's waterboarding escapade was a purposeful fabrication—that he set out to engineer a publicity event based on the reversal of his position. But even if you take the most charitable view of the evidence from Muller's perspective, all that emerges is a fake waterboarding that frightened a callow radio host.
Olbermann brought Muller—with his wife and daughter wandering around aimlessly and confusingly behind him in the studio—back to his show tonight to rebut our stories. He said that "the only actual evidence" that Muller's supposed waterboarding was not, in fact, a waterboarding was "the use of the word 'hoax' in an e-mail." Well, we'd say that's something, considering the e-mail in question was from Muller's publicist, Linda Shafran, who wrote outright that the event was indeed a hoax. Muller explained it away, as he did earlier today, by claiming that he would not have been permitted to do the stunt by his bosses if he let people know that he was actually planning on going through with it. He wasn't clear, but the implication was that Shafran wasn't in the loop—she thought it would be a bullshit stunt: "I didn't think it was a big deal, she didn't think it was a big deal. We were going to prove that it was nothing."
Shafran wrote the e-mail on the afternoon before the stunt, as part of a frantic attempt to find someone to conduct the waterboarding. Here's what she wrote:
It is going to have to look "real" but of course would be simulated with Mancow acting like he is drowning. It will be a hoax but have to look real.
No one disputes that the e-mail is genuine. Note that it contains other words than "hoax"—words like "look real" and "simulated." And—most importantly—"with Mancow acting like he is drowning."
Here's what Olbermann's paranoid rebuttals fail to explain: If Muller was planning on proving that waterboarding was no big deal, and if Shafran thought Muller was planning on proving that waterboarding was no big deal, and if Shafran also thought—wrongly—that it was going to be a hoax: Why would she write that Muller would be "acting like he is drowning"? Wouldn't he act like he wasn't drowning? Like waterboarding isn't a "big deal"? According to Muller's story, when Shafran wrote that e-mail, she was under the mistaken impression that Muller was going to fake a waterboarding to prove that it's no big deal. It makes no sense. Nor does Muller's line about trying to keep the bosses out of the loop: "You have to understand something," he said. "The Chicago cops came and said, 'You can't waterboard.'" Really? The Chicago Police Department came to you, Muller, and told you not to waterboard? We're going to call them and ask them on Monday!
Even if Muller is telling the truth about Shafran being out of the loop, her e-mail makes fairly clear that Muller knew how his waterboarding was going to end before it started.
Olbermann says it's absurd that Muller would deliberately fake a waterboarding so that he could publicly reverse his position. What's the motive? Well, how many times has he been on Countdown since he did it? How much publicity has he reaped from this episode? What's more newsworthy: A waterboarding supporter undergoes the procedure and confirms his beliefs, or a waterboarding advocate undergoes the procedure and changes his tune?
Gawker is, according to Olbermann, a part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to discredit his hero Muller: "It did occur to you," he asked us, "that the person who sent you the e-mails probably wanted to see Mancow's conversion discredited because the far right can't have somebody it considered its own dramatically saying he was wrong, and so somebody played your web site like a three dollar banjo for political purposes?"
Well, the e-mails are undisputed and they speak for themselves, so the motive of the leaker doesn't really have an impact in this instance. But Keith: The person who leaked them to us also leaked them to you—before you interviewed Muller. If they wanted to discredit him, why would they try to warn you off interviewing him? He can't be discredited until someone gives credit to what he's done in the first place—and you are the the most prominent person that he's convinced into giving him airtime. Someone who was interested in making Muller look like a clown would have wanted him to go on your show before leaking the e-mails. This leaker tried to stop him.
Olbermann acknowledged that his staff had received the e-mails, and did "due diligence and then some" in verifying Muller's story, which in this case consisted of talking to Muller, talking to Shafran, and leaving telephone messages for Klay South, the marine who did the waterboarding. Had Olbermann or his staff actually talked to South, as we did, they would have learned that he "didn't know what [he] was doing" and that he "just did what [he] was told—poured water on [Mancow's] face." Still, Olbermann says that his attempts to verify the story by talking to the guy who is telling it and believing the woman who said it was a hoax when she changed her story and said it wasn't a hoax were better than what Gawker did. "If our perspective here had been political or sloppy," he said, "we wouldn't have checked anything—you know, the way the web site did it."
That's a lie. Our night editor verified Shafran's e-mail with her directly and included her response in the story. We called Muller to get his side of the story and published it. We called South to get his story, and published it. We e-mailed Olbermann for his comment, and we called his MSNBC publicist for hers. Olbermann is living in a fantasy world where malicious bloggers spread lies about him without doing any legwork. We did more reporting on Muller's alleged waterboarding than he or his staff did.
What's more, Olbermann says that the explanation Shafran gave to his staff for her use of the words "hoax," "simulated," and "acting" in the e-mail was this that "it was just a bad choice of words in the heat of trying to find somebody, at the last minute, to participate." That was what she told them on the evening of the interview with Muller. But tonight, on Olbermann's show, Muller said that Shafran wrote that because that's what she thought it was going to be—a hoax. Which is it, Keith? Did Shafran think it was a hoax or did she just make a "bad choice of words"? If Muller's story is true, why would Shafran tell your producers that she just chose the wrong words?
In the end, there are two incontrovertible data points here: That Muller's publicist called the thing a hoax and said Muller intended to pretend he was drowning, and that the guy doing the waterboarding was by his own admission as unqualified to perform the procedure as one could possibly be. Muller's attempts to explain away the first one consist of little more than dubious rhetorical loop-de-loops from a professional provocateur and publicity-hound who has provided, over the years, innumerable reasons why he doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt. And nobody disputes the second. Even if Muller didn't deliberately orchestrate this whole stunt from the beginning, it's clear that whatever happened to him doesn't qualify as waterboarding in any recognizable sense of the word. His waterboarder had no training and says he's "the last person" they should have asked to do it. He wasn't subjected to anything close to the conditions that actual waterboarding victims suffer, or, for that matter, that journalists like Christopher Hitchens who undertook the procedure suffered. He decided to get waterboarded, so he asked his publicist to find someone who knew nothing about it to look it up on the internet and do it to him. We say it all adds up to a fake—either by orchestration or half-assed laziness. The only reason that Olbermann—or anyone else for that matter—could come to a different conclusion is ideological fervor. This, according to Olbermann, is "changing the debate" on torture.
After repeatedly claiming—falsely—that Gawker was alleging some kind of conspiracy when all we are alleging is that a notorious radio faker faked another thing, Olbermann and Muller got into some really heavy stuff, speculating that Gawker is doing Dick Cheney's dirty work. "Telling the truth, even accidentally even in a small way, can be very dangerous stuff," Olbermann said.
"There's dark forces behind this," Muller said. "I really believe this."
Also, Muller compared himself to Mike Tyson's dead daughter and said this was all predicted in Revelations. Seriously. He signed off by admitting that he "plays pranks all the time—that's the irony here."
This is the star that Olbermann decided to hitch his wagon to tonight. Bad move.
P.S. For the record: We know that waterboarding is torture, and that torture is illegal, immoral, and unacceptable. We just don't want lying buffoons making the case on our behalf.
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