(image: metaliu / flickr)

As the 2012 presidential debates get underway, my memory goes back to other recent presidential elections:

Remember how Dan Rather was hounded out of the anchor’s chair because one portion of his otherwise-unquestionably-rock-solid story on George W. Bush’s sketchy military service was called into question? Right-wing internet bloggers were credited with keeping the pressure on Rather and CBS until they got what they wanted — Rather’s head on a pike.

Fast-forward four years, to late October of 2004. Internet bloggers, this time on the left, were afire over photographic evidence showing that George W. Bush cheated in his debates with John Kerry, in that he was wearing a special hearing aid setup that was visible under his clothes and that allowed his handlers to feed him answers and other commentary on the fly, so he could look more competent than he really was. But interestingly, this time around, the bloggers weren’t able to get any mass corporate-owned media to do anything other than jokey pieces designed to mock anyone who brought up the subject as a “conspiracy theorist”. In fact, a few months after the 2004 election, it came out that the New York Times had spiked a serious story on Bulgegate, apparently because they didn’t want to hurt Bush’s re-election chances:

The Bulgegate story originated when a number of alert viewers of the first presidential debate noticed a peculiar rectangular bulge on the back of Bush’s jacket. That they got to see that portion of his anatomy at all was an accident; the Bush campaign had specifically, and inexplicably, demanded that the Presidential Debate Commission bar pool TV cameras from taking rear shots of the candidates during any debates. Fox TV, the first pool camera for debate one, ignored the rule and put two cameras behind the candidates to provide establishing shots.

Photos depicting the bulge and speculating on just what it might be (a medical device, a radio receiver?) began circulating widely around the Internet, and several special blog sites were established to discuss them. The suspicion that Bush had been getting cues or answers in his ear was bolstered by his strange behavior in that first debate, which included several uncomfortably long pauses before and during his answers. On one occasion, he burst out angrily with “Now let me finish!” at a time when nobody was interrupting him and his warning light was not flashing. Images of visibly bulging backs from earlier Bush appearances began circulating, along with reports of prior incidents that suggested Bush might have been receiving hidden cues (London Guardian, 10/8/04).

Finally, on October 8, this reporter ran an investigative report about the bulge in the online magazine Salon, following up with a second report (10/13/04)—an interview with an executive of a firm that makes wireless cuing devices that link to hidden earpieces—that suggested that Bush was likely to have been improperly receiving secret help during the debates.

At that point, Dr. Robert M. Nelson, a 30-year Jet Propulsion Laboratory veteran who works on photo imaging for NASA’s various space probes and currently is part of a photo enhancement team for the Cassini Saturn space probe, entered the picture. Nelson recounts that after seeing the Salon story on the bulge, professional curiosity prompted him to apply his skills at photo enhancement to a digital image he took from a videotape of the first debate. He says that when he saw the results of his efforts, which clearly revealed a significant T-shaped object in the middle of Bush’s back and a wire running up and over his shoulder, he realized it was an important story.

After first offering it unsuccessfully to his local paper, the Pasadena Star-News, and then, with equal lack of success, to the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh, where he had gone to college, he offered it to the Los Angeles Times. (In all his media contacts, Nelson says, he offered the use of his enhanced photos free of charge.) “About three weeks before the election, I gave the photos to the L.A. Times’ Eric Slater, who shopped them around the paper,” recalls Nelson. “After four days, in which they never got back to me, I went to the New York Times.”

The Times’ reporters and editors seemed very interested, and a story was written and slated for publication on October 28. But it never ran — at least, not in the New York Times:

But on October 28, the article was not in the paper. After learning from the reporters working on the story that their article had been killed the night before by senior editors, Nelson eventually sent his photographic evidence of presidential cheating to Salon magazine, which ran the photos as the magazine’s lead item on October 29.

Dear readers, imagine if the story were reversed: Can you see the NYT — or any modern mass-media paper — spiking a story on John Kerry’s wearing a special hearing aid so his aides could feed him answers during a debate? Yeah, I can’t, either.