Listen To This Story
Hello, friends. Here’s the seventh installment of my new Substack newsletter. I hope you like it. You can subscribe here.
As a subscriber, you’ll enjoy early access to my work before it’s posted at WhoWhatWhy. You’ll also enjoy exclusive Substack-only content.
Last week, I began recounting my personal experience with the establishment’s suppression of important information the public wants — and has a right and a need to know. Based on the response, you seemed to be very interested in the details, so this week I continue the story.
After my book Family of Secrets was published, a promised wave of positive reviews from major news organizations never appeared.
Much of what did appear bordered on character assassination.
The Los Angeles Times review, written by the paper’s media critic, Tim Rutten, was relentlessly negative.
Rutten accused me of being a fabulist trafficking in the “paranoid style.” He labeled my work “preposterous” and “a reprehensible calumny.” He concluded by advising the public to “avoid Baker’s Family of Secrets.”
But then he spiced up his salvo with some misdirection:
I regard the belief that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone as an important indicium of mental health. In fact, I think there are three things that every serious American needs to believe about our recent history: Kennedy was killed by a lone lunatic, Americans really did land on the moon and the Twin Towers were destroyed when they were struck by two fully fueled airliners that had been hijacked by Islamic extremists organized by Al Qaeda. People who do not believe in these things are, within reasonable limits, entitled to sympathy. They are not entitled to a seat at the table where serious discussions occur.
I was perplexed. I had written nothing at all about the moon landing, and my brief discussion of 9/11 focused only on the Bush family’s business and political ties with the bin Laden family and Saudi Arabia.
Only the Kennedy assassination got hefty attention — with loads of fresh evidence that, as the House Select Committee on Assassinations found and as most Americans believe, there was much more to the story.
Rutten did not engage with the facts. His snide swipe at those whom he labeled nutcases was a deliberate gambit: falsely representing a reporter’s thesis — then accusing him of failing to prove what he never claimed.
This is what the Times and other outlets did to Gary Webb after he published his “Dark Alliance” series in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996. In one of the internet’s very first viral stories, Webb used court records and other government documents to reveal that cocaine-trafficking profits funded right-wing Nicaraguan rebels trained by the CIA. (Finding an alternate funding source, like Oliver North’s arms sales to Iran, was necessary after Congress prohibited the CIA from spending money to overthrow Nicaragua’s government.) That same drug pipeline fueled the crack epidemic that tore apart Black neighborhoods across the country.
Just as I never addressed the moon landing or 9/11 — let alone questioned either narrative — Webb never claimed that the CIA deliberately engineered the crack epidemic to undermine Black communities. He reported that the CIA’s contacts somehow managed to run a massive drug smuggling ring unnoticed — or at least unmolested. Whether the CIA should have known about it — or did, and turned a blind eye — was outside the scope of his reporting, as he patiently insisted and as a subsequent Justice Department review noted.
But the false imputation was a central pillar of the subsequent “debunking” effort — a New York Times reporter assigned to the gang of journalists who published merciless follow-ups called it the “Get Gary Webb team” — that effectively ended Webb’s career. Less than a decade later, impoverished and disgraced, Webb shot himself.
So, reading Rutten’s disingenuous hatchet job, I was momentarily astonished — and yet, as I reflected on the history, not really so surprised after all.
To be sure, I had started the Family of Secrets project — meant to answer no more innocuous a question than “How did such an unaccomplished, unpromising, and already problematic person as George W. Bush become president of the United States?” — with some ambivalence.
Over the years, particularly in my days as an investigative reporter for The Village Voice, I had grown familiar with the concept that some topics were simply not suitable for airing in the establishment media. Nowhere was that more true than with anything suggesting that the deaths of transformative leaders — JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, et al — could ever involve organized plots or anything more than just a single loose nut with a gun.
On the other hand, facts are facts, or so I assumed. In researching Family of Secrets, I had spent years interviewing hundreds of people and amassing thousands of revealing documents. I still believed — or wanted to believe — that any careful reportage, no matter how explosive the findings, might earn attention from those in the “system.”
Bloomsbury UK, my (mainstream!) publisher, also believed this — especially based on initial responses to the book’s description in their catalog and to the manuscript itself.
Then the book was released.
I waited and I waited for the promised coverage in establishment media. To my disbelief and that of my publisher, one after the other, all of the places I had been told were going to write favorably, or at least give me a platform, went dark and silent. No promised appearance on Meet the Press. No expected coverage from National Public Radio.
The behavior of the ultimate arbiter for many people on what matters —The New York Times — was especially bizarre. Michiko Kakutani, the Times’s lead reviewer of serious books at the time, had seen a write-up on Family of Secrets. She was extremely interested, and even requested that she be given the exclusive right to be the first to review it. Yet not a word ever appeared.
Meanwhile, Time magazine was supposed to feature a substantial and favorable review from Lev Grossman, the magazine’s top literature critic, in their Person of the Year issue, which in December 2008 featured incoming President Barack Obama. This was a major coup in that era before social media immersion. People bought that issue at newsstands and held onto it for years as a collector’s item. A favorable review in a near-permanent magazine is an author’s dream.
I opened up the magazine and rifled through it but could not find the review. I’d been told it was in there, so, mystified, I went back over it a second time. I still could not see it. I looked at the index, and there was no mention. I then went back over it one more time, painstakingly scrutinizing every single page — back then, it was still a fairly thick book— to make sure that I hadn’t somehow overlooked it. On page 28, almost all the space was given over to “A Brief History of the Times Square Ball.” And just as I prepared to turn the page, I spotted it: the narrowest column you ever saw, right by the binding. If you didn’t spread the pages, you would certainly miss it altogether.
It was not only virtually invisible, it was sparse. I counted about 150 words in total. Barely a squib!
Apparently they had taken Grossman’s substantial and favorable review of a book chock full of shocking revelations on the outgoing president, in an issue with his successor on the cover, and stripped it down to next to nothing. They left his reference to me as a “prodigiously industrious investigative journalist” but appended the made-up word “farfetchedly” to dismiss my new Watergate research.
In their rating system that ranked books in three categories (Read, Skim, Toss), mine — a nearly 600-page book about one of the country’s most powerful political families, with more than a thousand footnotes and featuring cover blurbs from a best-selling author and former National Security Council member plus PBS luminary Bill Moyers — was rated a “Skim.”
I understood through back channels that Grossman was personally mortified but that there was nothing he could do because decisions had been made at higher levels. If the goal was to suppress the book, someone at Time Warner had done their job: as I confirmed anecdotally, even those who read that issue mostly missed the review.
Euthanizing the Truth
In retrospect, this made all kinds of sense. Throughout its long life, Time served as a reliable narrator of the American elite view of the world. Back in its heyday, its owner, Henry Luce, a close friend of Prescott Bush and fellow alumnus of the Yale secret society Skull and Bones, had been close friends of Allen Dulles and the CIA leadership. Shortly after President Kennedy fired Dulles, Luce invited the ex-spy chief to his Arizona winter place for moral support.
Such relationships were important, but more important was the powerful tendency to play it safe. There was no reason to think that, even as ownership changed, the safe haven in groupthink would end.
Beyond groupthink, one thing I have learned is just how dependent successful careers in journalism are on “access.” This necessitates cultivating “inside sources” — and the compromises that might require — and winning approval and requisite awards from the media establishment, most of it owned by wealthy individuals or interests, latter-day Henry Luces.
If what you publish defies, contradicts, or embarrasses the “inside sources,” or their friends, or the establishment writ large, then you risk ridicule and ostracization.
In addition, a great many people subscribe to the fairy tale of “American exceptionalism.” They adore the idea that America basically works well, except for the occasional bad apple or lone nut, and that the people have the ultimate say.
I recall one book event at a home in the hills above Los Angeles, where a well-meaning Hollywood crowd had gathered to hear me. One man grew increasingly angry as I spoke. He almost looked like he would have a heart attack. He began yelling at me that what I was saying was deeply disturbing to him and simply unacceptable. And these were liberals.
Over at The Washington Post, although they had staffers who were familiar enough with the context of my book’s material to have written a thoughtful review, the task was instead assigned to an outside contributor, a quasi-humorist.
He first praised me as a “capable investigator,” then said that I seemed to have somehow lost my way or lost my mind, that I was under the spell of a “Grand Theory of Bushativity.” He said that I pursued a foregone conclusion unsupported by evidence with the zeal of Inspector Javert from Les Misérables — and since I could not assume to know the actual motives behind various players’ actions, I had to use qualifiers like “apparently” and “seemingly.” Because of words like these, my work had “more crutches than the grotto at Lourdes.”
He almost completely ignored the enormous mass of documentary evidence I included.
His clever put-downs also elided any mention of an inherent conflict of interest: the close ties between the paper that had hired him to write the review and the intelligence establishment at the very time the Post brought down Nixon.
There was no mention of my reporting (or that of others) on the strange background of Bob Woodward shortly before he arrived at the Post: he worked in naval intelligence briefing senior government officials — some of whom were in a silent war with Nixon — shortly before he starred in the Watergate drama.
This was understandable; why wouldn’t the Post protect its brand? But even the liberal-left media did nothing.
The Nation magazine, for which I had covered stories over the years, was offered the book but published nothing.
The vaunted progressive show Democracy Now for some reason wanted no part of it.
I had known its executive producer and host Amy Goodman for years, and, while we were not close, we were friendly. I had even been to her house for a gathering. So I was not surprised Democracy Now asked me to come on the show.
Amy hadn’t read the book, but she certainly seemed interested and asked me friendly questions in her standard manner. At one point, when I had just mentioned the role of leading wealthy families in shaping so much US policy in the 20th century, often covertly, she asked me to name names. Because I didn’t want to just focus on one or two; I said that there were a number of them, but she pressed me. Finally I gave the Harrimans and the Rockefellers as examples.
I could swear that, at that moment, her eyes dilated.
In any case, she thanked me, said this was a terrific interview, and I was told that it would air the next day. However, it never aired. And all of our calls and emails to the show were ignored.
About a year later, I was at an event at Lincoln Center and ran into Amy, who gave me a hug, remarked that she hadn’t seen me in years and that I looked well. She asked me what I was up to. I was flabbergasted, but played it straight and told her I had written a book and described it. She said it sounded fantastic, and why not come on her show to talk about it?
At Least There’s C-SPAN
By early 2009, when it became apparent that Family of Secrets had been blacklisted by the full range of the establishment, including the respectable “left wing,” I decided — and my agent and publisher agreed — that I should do anything I could to get publicity for the book. (This was the “independent” publicity route that ultimately — as described in a previous newsletter, landed me on the air with a man I then knew little about named Alex Jones.)
The outside publicist, astonished at the difficulty they were having getting publicity for the book, said, “Well, at least there’s C-SPAN.” He spoke to a friend who worked there and relayed that they would send a camera crew out to cover any public event where I spoke.
Because just about the only author event I had was at a bookstore in counterculture Austin, TX, in March 2009, that’s where they would film.
When I arrived, there was an actual C-SPAN crew there, but, in a cruel irony, a paltry audience, which couldn’t have numbered more than 20 people. I subsequently heard from locals that the event had almost no promotion.
At the end of my talk, all three members of the C-SPAN crew lined up, having just bought copies of my book, and asked me to sign it. One of them remarked that this was the first time that any of them ever actually wanted to buy one of the books at a book event they covered. At this point, I was thrilled with any and all encouragement.
I asked the camera crew when C-SPAN would air it and they said it usually took several days after the event; others said it could take a week or two to air. The program, Book TV, ran on weekends — defined as Friday through Monday morning.
So that weekend, I looked. But it wasn’t there.
I contacted our publicist, he checked with his friend, and he said that it would definitely run next weekend. So the next weekend I waited, and again it did not run. I contacted the publicist and he inquired, and was told it would run “soon.”
The following week the same thing happened, and the week after. Finally, about five weeks in, I was given a specific week it was to run. So I went through the television schedule, day by day, hour by hour, from Friday to Sunday evening: nothing. All that was left were the wee hours of Monday morning. I looked: midnight 1 a.m. … 2 a.m. … 3 a.m. … 4 a.m. … 5 a.m. … and there it was: 5:30 a.m.
5:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, on C-SPAN.
Both the publicist and the crew assured me it was standard policy that C-SPAN ran each show several times, but my talk never appeared again.
Still a Bestseller
Over time I learned that one could construct a kind of alternative information distribution system.
It consisted of cobbling together a lot of what might be considered “fringe” shows (of which there were many, and, thanks to the explosion of podcasts, there are now many more) with local mainstream talk radio (which is often only interested in guests that will draw ratings) — as well as utilizing social media, mailing lists, recommendations from friends, in-person local appearances, and getting air time from independent hosts left, right, and in between.
Later on, my book presentations at the main New York City library, and in varied locales around the country, drew standing-room-only audiences.
In the end, Family of Secrets became a major bestseller. It has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The book is found in libraries throughout the country, and it’s still in print. It continues to be a solid performer for Bloomsbury year after year.
If there is a moral, I suppose it’s that we must not allow the establishment gatekeepers to determine what we know and what we understand by dismissing any uncomfortable yet informed question with ridicule. And to remember the vicious reaction that awaits anyone who attempts to challenge cherished beliefs.