According to medical consensus, a psychopath is a person who feels no connection with other people, and who cannot therefore know the slightest remorse, any shame or guilt, no matter how horrendous the sufferings he inflicts. And that brings me, neatly, to the New York Times, the nation’s newspaper of record, and an exemplar of psychopathic behavior.
This past summer, the Times reported prominently on the suicide of scientist Bruce Ivins, who had become the leading suspect in the still-mysterious anthrax attacks that further terrified an already shaken America in the months following the September 11 attacks. Although his motivation remains uncertain, the media speculated that Ivins might have launched these attacks in order to gain financially, or perhaps to draw further government support for his own research. I stress the word speculated, as it is unlikely that any evidence against the man would have stood up in court. As the Times properly noted, the evidence was quite circumstantial, and any account from government agencies must be read with due caution. For reasons I will make clear shortly, this last remark should leave observers gasping with amazement at the paper’s gall.
In passing, the Times also noted that the government probably planned a full exoneration of the previous prime suspect, Dr. Steven J. Hatfill. The federal Department of Justice had publicly identified Hatfill as a “person of interest” in the case, and accordingly subjected him to a multiyear investigation that found no significant evidence against him but destroyed his career in the process. Some months ago, Hatfill won a multi-million-dollar settlement from the government, which acknowledged some of its abuses and missteps in the case. But what the New York Times did not even mention in this lamentable tale was its own horrendous role in acting as a conduit for every vile, false, and poorly substantiated report it could scare up against Dr. Hatfill, all apparently published on the authority of federal agencies, with no discernible evidence of external confirmation. The Times was, in fact, performing the exact role that journalists serve in totalitarian regimes when the secret police have decided that X is an enemy of the people, and his reputation must be undermined as a justification for a later show trial.
Just how ghastly the stories presented against Hatfill were still beggars belief. In 2002, the Times’s Nicholas Kristof published a series of pieces against a mysterious mad scientist code-named “Mr. Z,” who came across as a latter day Josef Mengele. Allegedly, Z had worked with South African and Rhodesian authorities. Kristof asked the FBI,
Have you examined whether Mr. Z has connections to the biggest anthrax outbreak among humans ever recorded, the one that sickened more than 10,000 black farmers in Zimbabwe in 1978-80?
Why did such a monster work in a U.S. government lab where he had access not just to anthrax but to Ebola? The public was therefore duly primed when the DOJ identified Hatfill as its primary “person of interest.” Charges were presumably imminent.
But of course, they were not imminent, as the FBI had nothing concrete on which to proceed. They knew that Hatfill was a researcher with access to anthrax of the type linked to the attacks, and that he had written a novel about a fictional anthrax campaign undertaken on U.S. soil. But they could not go further unless Hatfill could be provoked or embarrassed into doing something stupid, into breaking cover, perhaps by trying to seek out his special stash of deadly spores—and that is why they needed a subservient and uncritical press. Although Hatfill ultimately failed in his libel suit against the Times and Kristof personally, the affair stands as a model of how law-enforcement agencies channel information in order to promote their ends, and how thoroughly they can expect to get their way.
One sickening part of the whole affair was Kristof’s disingenuous reaction when Hatfill’s name became public, and it was obvious whom all the “Z” stories were describing. Kristof denied having leaked information about the man, noting smugly that “I didn’t name him. But over the weekend, Mr. Z named himself: He is Steven J. Hatfill.” Note the suggestion there that Hatfill’s name came to light not because of systematic leaks from the FBI or the Department of Justice, but because the mass murderer spontaneously decided to come out of the closet. For Kristof and the Times, there was no guilt, no remorse, no shame.
In 2002, in some articles published in Chronicles, I denounced Kristof’s campaign against Dr. Hatfill. I concluded: “Seeing how slavishly media outlets like the New York Times reproduce official statements, I sometimes refer to that newspaper half-seriously by the name of American Pravda. Following this latest affair, I would like to apologize to Pravda.” The apology stands.