BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. When George W. walked out on that stage in Arizona this week, viewers at home could be forgiven for trying to cop a peek at the president's back. Whether or not they could detect something there -- between the shoulder blades, under the suit jacket, roughly the size of an Ipod, probably depended on their pre-disposition to a certain rumor churning through cyberspace --to wit -- the president is wired. [TAPE PLAYS] [APPLAUSE]
DAVID LETTERMAN: They have a, a picture of George W. Bush from the first debate, and in his back there is like a, a big lumpy bulge-- [LAUGHTER] and, and people were saying well, you know what that is - that's a radio receiver, and somebody is feeding him answers [LAUGHTER] to questions. [TAPE ENDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The persistence of the speculation, especially on the internet, but also in some corners of the mainstream press, finally elicited some response from the Bush campaign. Probably just a wrinkle in his jacket, they said, but definitely not an electronic device. Slate's deputy Washington bureau chief Chris Suellentrop joins me now from the Kerry campaign trail to examine this story. Chris, welcome back.
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: Good to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So where is most of the coverage of this mysterious bulge coming from?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: There was speculation about this in 2000, believe it or not. But the thing that really kicked off this latest wave was an article in Salon.com. And then, that kicked off a big liberal blog wave of chatting, and then sort of percolated up into the New York Times, and from there, it got into the Associated Press. I saw a picture of it on Headline News.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Washington Post's Mike Allen wrote about it.
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: That's correct. There's an-- an interesting way that the fact that rumors are printed gives them more credence -- some sort of importance that they wouldn't be if they were just, you know, in the grapevine. So, it's been some interesting decisions made by various White House and campaign reporters about how to deal with it, and there's just this question of: if people are talking about something, does that mean we need to cover it? And different people have different answers for that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what's your answer?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: I think it's definitely a story to write about. A line I had in a piece I wrote about this, I said, "You know, just because the umbrella man didn't shoot John F. Kennedy doesn't mean there wasn't an umbrella man and that we don't want to know, you know, who he is." I don't know if you need to write about everything people are talking about, but - I mean I think the press obviously missed the Swiftboat story for a long time -- something people were talking about -- and the press just sort of ignored it. And they missed the story in, in a lot of ways. I've never seen a, a wrinkle in somebody's clothes that came out as a rectangle. [LAUGHTER] So, you know, I think it's a real question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mentioned the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth story. That's a pretty important story. They were telling a lot of whoppers, and they were given free play in most of the media for most of the time. This story doesn't rise to that level. You have to, I guess, weigh the importance of one story against another.
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: That's absolutely true, but then that - you, you're faced up with the question: Well what? If a charge is even more serious, then you're supposed to write about it even more? I mean that can't possibly be the judgment that you make. Well, the more outrageous the claim, the more likely we need to write about it. Though the idea that the president has a, you know, radio transmitter in his ear is preposterous on its own.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why is that preposterous?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: Well, it's not preposterous. I suppose it's a - it's a serious claim. You know? [LAUGHS] And--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's a serious claim, deserving, perhaps, of serious attention?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: I agree with that. The fact that it was at a presidential debate is what makes it serious. But people are starting to ask questions about it. I don't want to sound like the White House press is totally ignoring this. They want to ask McLellan about it in the gaggle. They want to ask him about, look, the president skipped his physical this year. Does he wear a back brace? And they just want to get an answer on the record from them. Right now, we're getting a lot of - the White House says go talk to the campaign; the campaign says go talk to the White House.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, we talked to an expert in conspiracy theories some months ago, and he said that they always spring up in the absence of good, credible information. In a sense, by not really responding to the question, the White House is adding fuel to the fire.
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: I'm sure that's right. People say Roswell sprung from a PR blunder. If they don't explain to us what it is, I think this continues to dog him, at the very least as a joke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the White House would like it to go away. Do you think reporters would also like it to go away?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: Probably. I mean look, I think reporters want to set the agenda and not have the agenda set for them, and for better or for worse, if they feel like they've gotten pushed to this story and they don't think it's worthy of covering, it's the kind of thing they want to go away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, it's funny but whenever you get an uncomfortable story like this, I remember this happened to me when I was media reporter for National Public Radio, and the issue of the infamous semen-stained dress [LAUGHTER] from the Monica-gate scandal came up, NPR said to me: Cover the coverage of the dress. And really, that was the only coverage NPR did for a while. It seemed to inoculate them from the nastiness or the improbability of the story, and yet still get it on the record. Do you find that a lot of mainstream reporters are using the excuse of covering the coverage to cover the story?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: That's right. Now it's covering the blogs or covering the buzz on the internet. So you can say well, we're not giving credence to this story -- we're just covering what people are chatting about on line. And some of the people that have sat out the story have said, look, we don't want to do that story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think the internet is helping reporters to get to the bottom of this, or is it having the effect of discrediting the whole story from the outset?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: I think the latter. I mean I think that the idea that there was a rectangle on the president's back became obscured by the fact that all these left-wing bloggers were saying "the president is wired," which was sort of a leap unsupported by the evidence, and so then people immediately dismissed the rectangle and said this whole thing is phony; this is coming from partisans. Now, having said that, without them -- would we be talking about it? I don't know. It's a good question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Chris, thanks a lot.
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Suellentrop is deputy Washington bureau chief for Slate.com, and he joined us from the Kerry campaign trail in Des Moines, Iowa.