All Commentary
Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Mainstream Media and the Bonds Case

Some watchdogs.

The federal conviction of Barry Bonds for obstruction of justice has the mainstream media looking the wrong way. Instead of examining the government’s conduct, the media quote government agents as though they speak for God, rarely soliciting opinion critical of the State’s heavy-handed tactics. The New York Times quoted U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag:

This case is about upholding one of the most fundamental principles in our system of justice — the obligation of every witness to provide truthful and direct testimony in judicial proceedings. In the United States, taking an oath and promising to testify truthfully is a serious matter. We cannot ignore those who choose instead to obstruct justice.

The Times might have pointed out that prosecutors regularly and deliberately withhold exculpatory evidence, yet I cannot find in any recent example in which a government employee was indicated, let alone tried, for obstruction of justice. So the notion that the government cannot ignore regular people’s alleged obstruction justice is a joke, but it’s on those of us who are not employed in the government’s “justice” system.

Race Issue

At least one commentator focused on race rather than government conduct. Times sports columnist William Rhoden claims to understand why Bonds was prosecuted:

The trial of Barry Bonds has always been more than a simple case of pursuing a bad guy and proving that he lied. The chase and the subsequent trial have been as much about a baseball era driven by vanity and greed, and fueled by performance-enhancing drugs.

But the eight-year pursuit of Bonds also reflects America’s discomfort with prominent, powerful, wealthy black men.

Ironically Rhoden’s employer helped drive the prosecution, and it along with media outfits like Sports Illustrated (SI) and ESPN enabled the police-state tactics used in the case. The dirty secret of the Bonds case is not steroids, but rather that journalists teamed with government agents to pursue Bonds. Furthermore, we will experience déjà vu as these same forces join to destroy the great cyclist Lance Armstrong.

The Bonds case was the brainchild of IRS agent Jeff Novitsky, who illegally searched Bonds’s garbage and was the main source for former Times reporter and columnist Selena Roberts, who now is at SI. (Duff Wilson, of the Times, who disgraced himself in coverage of the infamous Duke lacrosse case by propping up Mike Nifong long after his case fell apart, also was part of this coverage.)

Evidence Lacking

The government did not have laboratory evidence that Bonds took steroids (Bonds told a federal grand jury he had not taken them). Moreover, Greg Anderson, one of Bonds’s personal trainers and also a target of the feds, refused cooperate with the investigation. So, with the help of the Times and SI, federal authorities unleashed one attack after another on Anderson and his family. He was jailed three times for contempt of court, and his mother-in-law’s home was raided by 20 heavily armed agents in a tax investigation that Anderson’s attorney believes was retaliation for not testifying before a grand jury. (Earlier he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute steroids and money laundering, and was sentenced to three months in jail and three months at home.)

These Gestapo-style tactics worked. No mainstream news publication to my knowledge editorialized against this abuse of power. One columnist, Buzz Bissinger of the Daily Beast, called for the charges to be dropped, mincing no words against Novitsky, but even Bissinger failed to condemn some of the worst government actions against no-name people who had no strong media connections.

This silence is instructive. The New York Times published hundreds of attack articles condemning Augusta National Golf Club (which hosts the Master’s Tournament) for not having female members, but never questioned government tactics in the Bond and Armstrong cases. Sports Illustrated burnishes its “liberal” credentials, but salivates at information Novitsky supposedly gave Selena Roberts on the sly.

When I was in journalism school nearly 40 years ago, my professors solemnly told me that the media were the “watchdogs of government.” If the Bonds case tells us anything, it’s that the watchdogs are foxes guarding the henhouse. As for the rights of Barry Bonds, well, he was surly and a lousy interview, anyway.

  • Dr. William Anderson is Professor of Economics at Frostburg State University. He holds a Ph.D in Economics from Auburn University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.