Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in San Bernardino

Being a college town, Palo Alto once offered a multitude of excellent new and used bookstores, perhaps as many as a dozen or so. But the rise of Amazon produced a great extinction in that business sector, and I think only two now survive, probably still more than for most towns of comparable size.

Amazon and its rivals have obviously become hugely beneficial book-buying resources that I frequently use, but they fail to offer the benefit of randomly browsing shelves and occasionally stumbling across something serendipitous. So I regularly stop by the monthly used book sale put on by Friends of the Palo Alto Library, whose offerings are also very attractively priced, with good quality paperbacks often going for as little as a quarter.

While browsing that sale a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a hardcover copy of Newsroom Confidential, a short 2022 insider account of mainstream journalism by Margaret Sullivan, who had spent four years as the Public Editor of the New York Times. I’d occasionally read her columns in that paper and had seen one or two favorable reviews of the book, so despite its pricey cost—a full $3—I bought and read it, hoping to get a sense of what she’d observed during her term as the designated reader-advocate at our national newspaper of record.

As she told her story, prior to joining the Times she had spent her entire career at the far smaller Buffalo News of her native city, eventually rising to become its editor. Although she’d been happy in that position, after eight years she decided to apply for an opening at the Times, and jumped at the offer when she received it.

Based upon her narrative, Sullivan seems very much a moderate liberal in her views, not too different from most others in her journalistic profession despite being raised in a family of more conservative blue-collar Catholics in Upstate New York. She opened the Prologue of her book by denouncing Donald Trump’s infamous “Stop the Steal” DC rally of early 2021 and she described the invasion of our Capitol by outraged Trumpists as “one of the most appalling moments in all of American history,” sentiments probably shared by at least 90% of her mainstream colleagues.

Born in 1957, Sullivan explained that as a first grader she and everyone else in her community had been horrified by the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, our first Catholic president. Less than a decade later, she was transfixed by the Watergate Scandal and the subsequent Senate hearings that led to the fall of President Richard Nixon. Like so many others of her generation, she had idolized Woodward and Bernstein, the crusading young reporters who broke the case and brought down a crooked president, especially admiring their portrayal by movie stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the film version of All the President’s Men. Along with many other idealistic young Americans, Sullivan decided to embark upon a journalistic career as a consequence.

As far as I can tell, Sullivan seems to have been a committed and honest professional during the decades that followed, describing some of her mundane minor conflicts with colleagues but generally trying to tell their side of the story as well. As a lateral hire from a smallish Upstate newspaper, she had moved rather cautiously after joining the illustrious Times, and although she sometimes took a bit of pride in a few of her columns that attracted considerable readership or were widely Tweeted out, none of these much stuck in my mind.

As the end of her four year tenure approached, the Times tried to persuade her to extend it, but she preferred to move over to the Washington Post and become one of their media columnists.

The various tidbits of gossip she reported from those newspapers were hardly earth-shattering. She’d had a private dinner with top Times editor Jill Abramson one evening only to be shocked the next morning when the latter was summarily fired by the publisher, so she passed along the speculation about what combination of factors might have been responsible for that sudden purge. Abramson had been the first woman to serve as executive editor of the Times, and she was replaced by her deputy Dean Baquet, who became the first black to hold that post. Sullivan explained that the two had long had a contentious relationship, and many members of the newsroom speculated that Baquet had demanded that the Times leadership choose between the two of them. Apparently Abramson had a difficult personality while Baquet was much more charming, so even though he sometimes threw “temper tantrums” he was able to get away with such behavior, and he came out on top.

Although Sullivan never broke a major story nor won any important journalistic prize, she seemed very much a solid team-player rather than a prima donna and got along well with her professional colleagues. Therefore, I was hardly surprised that she was chosen to join the Pulitzer Prize Board in 2011 and eventually became executive director of a Columbia University center for journalist ethics.

Her book was a rather short one, so although I didn’t really get much out of it, it also hardly absorbed too many hours of my time. But what struck me in reading it was how a longtime editor and media columnist could have lived through some of the most shocking and dramatic events of the last sixty years without ever seeming to seriously question any of them. The Kennedy Assassinations of the 1960s, the 9/11 Attacks and the long War on Terror, the 2016 Russian election interference that put Donald Trump in the White House, the global Covid epidemic beginning in early 2020 and the massive social upheaval following the police murder of George Floyd later that same year—all those seminal incidents were discussed in her text yet she never seemed to entertain the slightest doubts about those standard narratives.

At one point she noted the striking collapse of public confidence in the honesty and reliability of American journalism, which had plummeted from around 72% soon after Watergate to just 36% these days. But she never asked herself whether the public might have a sound basis for such rapidly growing distrust of our media.

In reading Sullivan’s account of her journalistic career, two names from Shakespeare’s Hamlet came to mind: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Those two Danish courtiers had remained totally oblivious to the enormous events taking place around them and suffered a dire fate as a consequence, though they later became the protagonists of Tom Stoppard’s absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Although fifteen or twenty years ago, I might have shared Sullivan’s tendency to ignore any deeper realities of modern American history, her book was published in 2022 and I wondered whether she had ever seriously explored the full range of information available on the Internet during the decades she had spent as an editor and a media columnist.

As she casually described some of the watershed events of her lifetime, always seeming to take them entirely at face value, I smiled a bit since over the years I had carefully analyzed most of them in my own American Pravda series and usually come to very different conclusions. But what jumped out at me was her discussion of a much smaller incident from near the end of her tenure at the Times. Although that story has been almost totally forgotten, it filled nearly four pages of her short book, occupying almost as much space as Watergate and far more than the 9/11 Attacks.

In December 2015, terrorist gunmen had attacked the public employees of San Bernardino, California at their offices, killing fourteen and wounding more than twenty, the worst mass shooting in America since Sandy Hook three years earlier. Within hours, a massive local police mobilization had located, shot, and killed the Islamic fanatics responsible and all the details of the case are provided in a very comprehensive Wikipedia article that runs more than 19,000 words.

Sullivan became involved in a controversy over whether the pro-jihadi social media posts left by one of the killers had been correctly described by an anonymous government source, whose information was the basis of a provocative front page Times story that became an important element in the political debate. Her critical column made waves and even drew the involvement of her newspaper’s top editor before the matter was ultimately settled to her complete satisfaction.

At the time of that mass shooting, I was heavily focused upon the final stages of preparing my ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the Harvard Board of Overseers, but certain elements of that incident stuck in my mind, and although Sullivan never seemed to have questioned any of its strange details, I certainly did.

During the previous few years I’d grown increasingly suspicious of many of the watershed events of our country’s modern history, but I hadn’t yet launched my American Pravda series nor even published a single article outlining any of my conspiratorial views. However, certain elements of this mass shooting raised red flags in my mind, and I soon republished a short column by longtime libertarian writer Gary North highlighting some of those issues.

On December 2nd, public employees of San Bernardino County were holding a day-long training exercise and holiday party at their offices when a deadly attack suddenly began. According to all the eyewitnesses, three large white men, wearing ski masks and dressed head-to-toe in military-style commando-outfits suddenly burst into the gathering and began raking the terrified victims with gunfire from their assault-rifles, killing fourteen and wounding more than twenty others. Although after nine years many of the YouTube videos providing the statements of survivors are no longer available, the CBS Evening News phone interview with a seemingly very credible eyewitness is still on the Internet and worth viewing.

Another witness interviewed by NBC News similarly reported seeing “3 white males” in military gear fleeing the scene of the shooting, and a later Time Magazine article seemed to confirm those same reports by all the early eyewitnesses. So three large white men dressed in commando-gear had apparently committed the brutal massacre, then escaped the scene in a black SUV.

Some 300 local law enforcement officers were quickly mobilized and although they arrived too late to catch the perpetrators, they began patrolling the vicinity, hoping to find the killers before they struck again. Their efforts were soon rewarded and four hours later they located the black SUV driving less than two miles away, and after a massive gun-battle with hundreds of rounds fired, they shot the terrorists to death. Yet oddly enough, the slain culprits turned out to be a young Pakistani Muslim married couple living nearby, Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, whose six-month-old baby girl had fortunately been left at the home of her grandmother when the parents said they needed to drive to a doctor’s appointment.

Government officials and their media allies all soon declared the case closed, explaining that the Pakistani couple had apparently self-radicalized themselves by reading Islamicist tracts on the Internet and becoming followers of the dread ISIS terrorist movement. ISIS had been much in the news during 2015, allegedly responsible for staging numerous attacks all across Western countries.

But the total divergence between the two descriptions of the suspects seemed quite remarkable, especially once the news media revealed that Malik was a very short woman, standing barely five feet tall. In conversations and later posted comments, I joked that America’s ISIS foes were formidable indeed if they possessed the magical power to transform themselves from one very short woman into two large men and then back again.

Eyewitness testimony at horrific events is notoriously unreliable and although the shooters had been described as white based upon visible portions of their skin, the commando-outfits they were wearing would have concealed most of that, so such identification might have easily been mistaken. Perhaps many of the County employees were relatively short individuals from a Hispanic, Asian, or Middle Eastern immigrant background and they merely assumed that someone large and tall was more likely to be of white European ancestry. But a tiny woman looks very different from a large man and it’s hard to confuse two shooters with three. Even after the official narrative had congealed into its final form, the eyewitness interviewed by CBS News stuck to her story when later questioned by ABC News, saying “I know what I saw.”

The background of the terrorist couple also seemed quite odd. According to news accounts, Farouk had spent the previous five years working as a County food inspector, generally known as someone who got along well with others, with baffled co-workers saying that the young couple were “living the American dream.” Meanwhile, although she’d originally trained as a pharmacist, Malik had become a stay-at-home mom, apparently still nursing her six-month-old baby girl. While I suppose it’s possible that a young, nursing mother has sometimes gone on a wild terrorist rampage, I’d never previously heard of such a case.

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