Cynthia Cotts

CNN in the Crossfire

CNN had a big scoop on December 19, when the network broadcast a half-hour interview with John Walker Lindh in a hospital bed, pledging his allegiance to the jihad. But according to Robert Young Pelton, the freelancer who spoke to Lindh in Afghanistan, CNN decided to broadcast the full interview shortly after the FBI began threatening to subpoena the tape in mid December. And now, whatever CNN intended, the extensive media coverage of the case appears to have cost Lindh his right to a fair trial.

Recall that Lindh became famous overnight. Before December 2, when CNN reported that he had been taken into custody, he was a faceless minion behind enemy lines. Just two months later, Lindh has replaced bin Laden as the face of evil, and CNN's interview has become a key piece of evidence in the criminal case that kicked off in Virginia last week. He has not yet been indicted.

The Lindh interview may turn out to be a case study in how the government can put the squeeze on the media. Here are some of the facts known so far: Pelton, the author of several travel books, had no experience as a journalist until last fall, when he got an invitation to spend time with a warlord who was fighting with a team of Green Berets in Afghanistan. He called CNN, which immediately sent him a cameraman, after which he filed several stories. One of them was his Lindh interview, which he conducted in a hospital near Mazar-i-Sharif and which first aired on December 2—around the same time Lindh was taken into military custody.

When Pelton sent the two-minute segment by satellite, "It was a big deal for CNN," he told the Voice. "CNN's going through a lot of troubles financially, and they're driven as much by viewers as by news judgment. So when this tape came over the transom, they were saying, 'We've got a scoop!' "

Pelton returned from Afghanistan on December 17. About a week before that, he said, he heard that the FBI was talking to CNN, and a top CNN exec told the cameraman, "Don't lose that tape!" However, it is standard for news organizations to resist turning over raw reporting material for use in a court of law. To avoid the subpoena, Pelton says, CNN worked out a deal whereby it broadcast an edited tape and posted an all-but-complete version on the Internet.

By placing the tape in the public domain, legal experts say, network execs pulled off a neat trick. They gave prosecutors the evidence they wanted—and avoided being served the subpoena. That way CNN could duck the bad publicity from either resisting or complying with the subpoena.

A CNN spokesperson issued the following statement: "In certain investigations, federal criminal rules often do not allow parties to discuss whether they've been served with a subpoena. CNN understands that this is that type of investigation, so we cannot talk about it one way or another." Pressed to explain a broadcast that became so prejudicial, he said, "We aired the interview because it was newsworthy and it was exclusive."

Marc Garber, a former prosecutor turned defense attorney, said that it's natural for the Justice Department to want to "keep a tight lid on the evidence" and for CNN to want to "get out in front of the story."

"I don't think CNN or the government would want to be seen as getting in bed in something as sensitive as this," said Garber. "This is the system that's being attacked by terrorists, so if you're the government, you want this to be the fairest trial. If you saddle up to CNN or put the screws to them, you're going to cause yourself more harm in the long run."

Again: Lindh has not yet been indicted. So far, according to Pelton, the only evidence being cited by the government are Lindh's statements to CNN and to FBI agents, and Pelton's statements to the media. Last week, Lindh's lawyer James Brosnahan questioned the admissibility of Lindh's FBI statements because, he said, his client was denied the right to counsel for 54 days after he was taken into custody. (The government says Lindh signed a waiver of his right to counsel.)

It's unclear what evidence will turn up at trial. Some legal insiders seem to feel that the CNN interview will be admitted, based on the government's argument that it was a voluntary statement given to a third party. But they say Brosnahan will try to undermine the CNN interview by arguing that Lindh did not fully consent to the interview, that he was being given morphine at the time, or that CNN was acting as an arm of the U.S. government. Brosnahan did not return calls for comment.

According to defense attorney Mark Geragos, the FBI's failed attempt to subpoena the tape suggests that CNN was "not in cahoots with the government." The bigger question, he said, is "How did CNN get access to somebody who was supposedly in military custody?" To get the answer to that enigma, Geragos predicted, Brosnahan will want to depose Pelton, the CNN cameraman and producers, and whoever was in command of the Special Forces at Mazar-i-Sharif. Finally, because prosecutors need witnesses to support Lindh's statements, Geragos said they may end up using some of the prisoners currently being held in Guantánamo Bay to testify against him.

For his part, Pelton insisted, "I have never had any connection with any U.S. government agency." Rather than trying to incriminate Lindh, he said, he only wanted to make sure the American received medical care and that he wouldn't be killed. He suggests the tape has been misused by prosecutors whose case against Lindh relies heavily on TV interviews, instead of facts provided by firsthand sources. Instead of using the CNN interview to turn Lindh into a convenient "symbol of hatred," Pelton said, the Bush administration should be focusing on Saudi and Egyptian terrorist suspects currently at large in America.

But Pelton doesn't just blame the government. He said the pundits (including certain guests on Larry King Live and myself) have twisted the facts of the case, using it for target practice, while Lindh has done nothing but tell the truth so far.

Pelton said he shares Lindh's devotion to the truth."I'm not a journalist," he said, "and I have no interest in sensationalized stories. What I do is meet with combatants on each side, try to understand why they're doing what they're doing, and let the readers make up their own minds." He said that initially, he was glad CNN "was running a raw, gritty tape and trying to get some insight" into Lindh, because "as long as we demonize the phenomenon of young jihadis, they're going to be angry and do violent, irrational things."

Of course, these questions may soon be moot. If prosecutors can get other prisoners to testify, they may never formally introduce the CNN interview into evidence, in which case the defense will never have an opportunity to investigate its provenance. If that happens, the government and CNN will once again come out ahead—and Lindh will once again be the loser.

Cynthia Cotts is the Village Voice's media columnnist.

Scandal? What Scandal?

Last week, The Washington Post's Paul Farhi joked that the Enron story might not catch on, because it is an incomprehensible Washington scandal (IWS) rather than a simple Washington scandal (SWS), which is usually about sex. "By definition," Farhi wrote, "an IWS is so convoluted that it is understood only by participants, partisans, lawyers, and a few very nerdy journalists."

Jokes aside, lots of pundits seem to be downplaying this scandal for one reason or another, but don't listen to anyone who says it's not a "political scandal." Enron symbolizes what's wrong with Republicans and Democrats—over the last two decades, the political system has been bought off by big corporations, who prefer to work in a marketplace free of checks and balances. Even conservatives see the pendulum swinging: Chris Matthews has predicted fallout for the GOP in 2002, and George Will says the time has come for more government regulation.

The story line is simple: The feds looked the other way while Enron reaped unconscionable profits. With the help of accountants, the company failed to pay income tax, inflated its assets, and hid its debt in secret partnerships, which it named Condor and Raptor. In November, the company disclosed that it had overstated profits and failed to report more than $1 billion in debt. By the time the company went bankrupt, executives had sold $1.1 billion in stocks, while 50,000 Enron employees lost their life savings. The Enron logo, a big "E," actually resembles a magnet for money.

Here's another way to conceptualize the story—imagine a two-page scandal chart, complete with boldface names, neckless head shots, and squiggly lines indicating all the connections. You can fit a lot of facts on two pages. For example: President Bush is an old friend of Enron chief Kenneth Lay, whom he calls Kenny Boy, and Bush has bagged more than $550,000 from Enron execs over the years. Presidential adviser Karl Rove owned at least $100,000 in Enron stock, which he sold in June 2001. Not long ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft took $57,000 from Enron, but now he has recused himself from the investigation. As John Podhoretz says, "There doesn't seem to be any stonewalling there."

Instead, Ashcroft's investigation of Enron is being handled by Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, who used to work for one of Enron's law firms. Another Enron firm, Vinson & Elkins, investigated the company's accounting last fall and found nothing "inappropriate." Before joining the administration, Bush economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey was a $50,000 consultant to Enron, and at the White House, he did not think Enron's situation merited any government action. (Enron has also made contributions to Democrats, including Chuck Schumer, Ann Richards, and the DNC.)

The scandal chart could show all the connections to Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm that signed off on Enron. Enron hired its chief accountant, Richard Causey, from Andersen, where his job had been to audit the books for Enron. Andersen is said to have occupied an entire floor in Enron headquarters in Houston. Rep. Billy Tauzin got about $50,000 from Andersen between 1989 and 2001, but now that Tauzin is leading the House investigation of Enron, he says he won't cut Andersen any slack. Harvey Pitt represented Andersen and other accounting firms in front of the SEC, but now that he's SEC chairman, Pitt thinks he's the man to crack down on the accounting industry. Even The Wall Street Journal thinks Pitt may have a conflict.

In fine print, the chart could record the denials that have come out of this scandal. Immediately after January 11, when it was reported that Arthur Andersen had destroyed documents related to the case, Bush officials began distancing themselves from Enron. Bush says he hasn't spoken to Kenny Boy since last spring, and the Commerce and Treasury secretaries say they turned down Lay's call for help this past fall. Enron execs deny any inside knowledge that led them to sell stocks at a profit, and Condor and Raptor apparently hatched out of thin air. On January 15, Andersen fired David Duncan, the partner in charge of the Enron account. According to The Wall Street Journal, Duncan feels "the firm is unjustly trying to pin the blame on him."

Finally, the chart could trace connections between Enron and the media themselves. In 1999, Enron paid New York Times columnist Paul Krugman $50,000 to serve on an advisory board. (Krugman disclosed that fact in January 2001.) Arthur Andersen employs David Tabolt, a former editor and reporter for the Associated Press, in its PR department. Most remarkably, Arthur Andersen pre-leased 600,000 square feet in Mort Zuckerman's Times Square Tower, now under construction on the south side of 42nd Street. That could spell trouble for Mort, and as the New York Post's Steve Cuozzo pointed out, it might explain why the Daily News was a bit slow picking up on the story of Andersen's demise over the weekend of January 12. Of course, the News is not the only paper with a possible conflict. One of Andersen's top clients is Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which owns the Post.

If the News and the Post are potentially biased in favor of Arthur Andersen, The New York Times may harbor a negative bias. As the Times reported on January 11, the accounting firm destroyed documents related to the case, which is obviously criminal behavior. But logically, Andersen's guilt does not exonerate Enron, unless you are Times business reporter Kurt Eichenwald—who has written that so far, "the biggest failure . . . appears to rest with [Enron's] auditors, Arthur Andersen."

Eichenwald has a history of corporate boosterism. In 2000, he came out with a popular book called The Informant that downplayed price-fixing at agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland while demonizing the whistleblower who helped make the case. So it's no surprise that he's all over the latest scandal. On January 13, he landed on the front page of the Times with a sweeping overview of the rise and fall of Enron. The story read like a book proposal, and it glossed over Condor and Raptor while heaping blame on Arthur Andersen. The last line quoted a former Enron employee, who said, "It's beginning to sound like a John Grisham novel."

As others have noted, blaming the accountants is a central part of Enron's defense strategy. And it seems to be working, deflecting some of the attention from the predatory actions of Kenneth Lay. Consider this bit from the Times's lead editorial on January 14: "Enron may have been deceitful in recent years, using off-the-books partnerships to exaggerate revenues and hide debt," the editorial read. "It was Arthur Andersen, however, that signed off on the . . . company's deceptive financial reports."

There are many appropriate responses to this scandal, but apologizing for Kenny Boy isn't one of them. I'm with The New York Observer's Michael Thomas, who says the officers of Enron "should be stripped of their insider stock profits and go to jail."

Cynthia Cotts is a media critic for the Village Voice.

Opium for the Masses

During the last few weeks of anthrax hysteria, a dozen or so U.S. reporters have pursued a more difficult, taboo story: opium's role as the centerpiece of Afghanistan's economy. That cursed country was already a place where children helped to harvest the gum from the poppies, working people kept opium in their homes rather than money in the bank, and the Taliban raked in up to $50 million a year in drug taxes. But post-September 11, Taliban leaders lifted a ban on their bestselling crop, and the growers and dealers have been conducting business as usual. On the tail of smart pieces in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere, The New York Times ran a solid version of the story on October 22.

The best of these stories note that the careening wartime economy has spurred Afghan civilians to re-embrace the drug trade. Farmers are tilling the fields to prepare for the winter crop, chemists are setting up labs in caves and the backs of trucks, and family men are risking their freedom to sneak heroin across the border. As the Taliban dumps an estimated 4000 tons of stockpiled opium on the world market, the Northern Alliance continues to export a hefty share through Tajikistan into Russia and beyond. Experts fear that, in the absence of "nation-building" efforts, the trade will flourish long after the U.S. installs a new government in Kabul.

The rising tide of Afghan opium, heroin, and hashish is a potential disaster. But as the Times' Tim Golden pointed out, the U.S. has long neglected the drug war in that region. Last week, a DEA spokesperson told the Voice that his agency has no access to Afghanistan. Asked about published reports that the U.S. military intends to target stockpiles, heroin labs, and poppy fields in Afghanistan, a Pentagon spokesperson called the reports "pure speculation."

"Our quarrel is with the Taliban and Al Qaeda and the terrorists and the governments that support them," said the Pentagon source. "The drug trafficking business has been a problem in Afghanistan for a while, and it's an issue that the new government will have to address with the international community."

The Times paints the drug scene in Afghanistan as a casualty of U.S. neglect, but it's also possible our government has decided that an uncontrolled drug trade is an acceptable form of collateral damage in this particular war. If so, it won't be the first time. During the 1980s, when the U.S. paid the mujahideen guerrillas to fight the Soviet invasion, the CIA famously turned a blind eye to the drug trade, and within a few short years, Afghanistan came out of nowhere to become the world's second-largest opium grower, after Myanmar. While most of the heroin sold in the U.S. now arrives from Colombia and Mexico, during the 1980s Pakistan and Afghanistan supplied more than half the U.S. market.

On October 7, the Los Angeles Times published a front-pager that suggested a direct causal relationship between war and the drug trade. Reporting from Islamabad, the Times' John Daniszewski noted that "drugs thrive in a war culture, because warlords need the money from such illicit sales to buy weapons, and growers and smugglers need an environment of lawlessness to operate without fear of the police." Without implicating the U.S., Daniszewski also reported that the Soviet invasion in 1979 led to "a two-decade drug bonanza" that gave the Taliban the resources to take over Afghanistan.

Writing for the Chicago Tribune on September 30, Islamabad-based Tom Hundley probed a little deeper, noting that during the 1980s, CIA director William Casey embraced the opium trade as a means to finance his covert war in Afghanistan. Translation: The Afghan fundamentalists may be drug lords, but they're our drug lords. They learned to trade drugs for arms 20 years ago, with the tacit approval of the CIA.

In the past few weeks, the Afghan drug trade has received energetic coverage, often from the front, by The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, The Baltimore Sun, USA Today, and the Chicago Tribune. But the New York Times coverage this month has been spotty—the paper ran a color photo of opium smokers in the desert on October 7, and on October 4, Barry Meier filed a curious report alleging that Osama bin Laden had tried to produce a "super-heroin" to be marketed in Europe and the U.S. (The Independent called the claim "sensational though thinly substantiated.")

Grisly details about the U.S. role as a catalyst in the Afghan drug trade can be found in the 1991 revised edition of Alfred McCoy's The Politics of Heroin and in Ahmed Rashid's Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia. According to McCoy, the relationship between covert ops and the Afghan drug trade began when the CIA chose Pashtun hero Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. During the 1980s, Hekmatyar received $1 billion in covert U.S. funds.

With the help of Pakistani intelligence, the CIA smuggled arms across the Pakistani border to Afghan guerrillas, using donkeys, camels, and trucks. After the arms were unloaded, the same convoys shipped the drugs out, and Hekmatyar became a major trafficker overnight. Opium grown in Afghanistan was processed in Pakistani labs by Hekmatyar associates, and certain corrupt Pakistani officers transported the drugs "under their own bayonets," according to one source.

Hekmatyar and the CIA denied any involvement in the drug trade, and the U.S. media held the story until the Cold War ended. Finally, in 1990, The Washington Post published a front-page exposé of Hekmatyar and his U.S. protectors that should be required reading for every journalist covering Afghanistan. (These days, Hekmatyar lives in exile in Iran, and Pakistan gets high marks in the drug war.)

Some final facts to consider: The Taliban have at least 40 opium warehouses in Afghanistan, as well as stockpiles in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere. U.S. sources have said they will try to find the stockpiles using satellite imagery, and the Pentagon recently moved to buy the rights to every photo it commissions from a commercial satellite company—effectively preventing the war photos from ever becoming public.

Does the U.S. have a secret plan to seize raw opium as war booty? A DEA spokesperson told the Voice last week that "a lot" of the Taliban stockpiles had already been "seized," a report the Pentagon would not confirm or deny. On the contrary, Golden's sources said the U.S. has "scant information" about the location of the stockpiles.

Make no mistake—raw opium is a valuable commodity. Just ask the late U.S. drug czar Harry Anslinger. During World War II, Anslinger quietly built his own opium stockpile to assuage the fears of the pharmaceutical industry. At the time, the U.S. bought most of its legal opium from Yugoslavia and Turkey. But as Anslinger assured the industry in 1941, there was always "high-grade" and "abundant" opium to be had from Afghanistan. Sixty years later, there still is.

Telecom for Dummies

By necessity, most news reports about media consolidation are so dry and technical, they put even the most attentive readers to sleep. But while we slumber, the Bush administration is busy ceding huge chunks of the once-public electronic media to a handful of corporate execs. And when the moguls achieve market domination, they will no doubt exploit it by jacking up the price of our cable, Internet, and phone service, and running competitors and critics out of business.

Given the speed of this consolidation—and the sudden flush of TV ads by Time Warner, AT&T, and Verizon—even the most apolitical of media watchers should take a minute to study how and why this game is being played. What follows is a brief (and by no means definitive) guide to the players and concepts involved.

Michael Powell: When it comes to media moguls, we tend to think of News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch and Viacom's Sumner Redstone. But arguably the most powerful man in media, this year's red-hot center, is Michael Powell, the Bush-appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission.

Son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the 38-year-old former army brat is a diehard with a pro-business agenda. In speeches, Powell has called regulation "the oppressor" and declared the FCC's original mandate—serving the public interest—to be "about as empty a vessel as you can accord a regulatory agency."

FCC: Powell's turf is the subject of cover stories in the September issue of Mother Jones and the Voice in July, both by Brendan I. Koerner. In Mother Jones, Koerner writes that the FCC was founded in 1934 to protect consumers from monopolies and price gouging. But this year, the private sector's desire to reverse that mandate has found a champion. Under Powell, the five FCC commissioners hobnob with corporate "clients" on expenses-paid trips to Cancun and Madrid—when they are not issuing decisions that will promote their clients' monopolies and price gouging.

Kathleen Abernathy: Powell's commissioner is a Bush-appointed Republican lawyer and former lobbyist for several telecom companies. According to fans, the 45-year-old wife and mother is an "extremely well-liked individual" whose goal is to make the FCC more "customer-friendly."

Astroturf: Slang for think tanks with innocuous-sounding names like Alliance for Public Technology and Keep America Connected. While these groups churn out ads and studies that purport to represent the interests of rural and minority consumers, in fact, they are funded by a consortium of telecom companies that are hell-bent on deregulation for their own benefit.

Cross-ownership rules: Traditionally, these rules were meant to ensure that no single media company would control too many properties in the same market, but today they are more honored in the breach than in practice. In July, the FCC suspended one such rule so that Murdoch can now legally own two TV stations and one newspaper in New York. The decision was zapped by a New York Times editorial, which called it a threat to media diversity and a spur for "other news organizations to explore the acquisition of multiple outlets in the same geographic area."

Ernest Hollings: This South Carolina Democrat and chair of the Senate Commerce Committee is the most outspoken critic of deregulation on Capitol Hill. In a hearing two months ago, he mocked Viacom's Mel Karmazin for suggesting that FCC regs are seriously hurting profits in the broadcast industry. Hollings has since introduced a bill that would enforce current regs and require the FCC to conduct a study of the market before it abolishes any more restrictions on media consolidation.

Reed Hundt: Author of You Say You Want a Revolution, a memoir recounting his 1993-to-1997 tenure as FCC chair, Hundt gives good quotes to the press. He told Mother Jones that, as commissioner, "You're really struck by the pressure of the lobbying. . . . It's ubiquitous, it's personal, it's hard-edged. It's also seductive."

Robert W. McChesney: Author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy, McChesney is the leading liberal critic of profit-driven media culture. Arguing that politicians and industrialists have conspired to silence any public debate over consolidation, McChesney sees democracy as seriously threatened by the trend toward "concentrated, conglomerated, and hypercommercialized" media.

Monopoly The holy grail for every big media company. Currently a handful of companies are vying to monopolize the markets for cable TV and high-speed Internet service, with the help of Congress, the FCC, and the federal courts. The top dogs in the cable world are Viacom and AT&T, each of which now controls more than 40 percent of the market. The market for high-speed Internet access, or broadband, is now dominated by AT&T, which offers cable access, and the Bell companies, which offer access by DSL, or digital subscriber lines.

1996 Telecommunications Act: This historic bill accelerated the pace of media consolidation. In one provision, the act requires the FCC to review industry regulations every two years, with a view toward their eventual repeal. It also repealed cross-ownership laws for radio. As a result, according to Mother Jones, four companies now own all the radio stations in the U.S. and control 90 percent of the ad revenues.

Billy Tauzin: Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, this Louisiana Republican is big media's best friend on the Hill. He recently introduced the Tauzin-Dingell bill, which would allow Bell companies like Verizon to give customers only one choice for high-speed Internet access while maintaining a monopoly on local phone service. In his previous job as chair of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, Tauzin was wined and dined by Murdoch; and in December 1999, Time Warner cosponsored Tauzin and his wife on a $19,000 trip to Paris. His daughter is a former employee of the National Association of Broadcasters and his son is a lobbyist for BellSouth.

Tribune Company: Last year, the Tribune acquired Times Mirror, a deal which gave the company a TV station and a newspaper each in L.A., New York, and Hartford, Connecticut. In July, Tribune exec Jack Fuller lobbied Congress to loosen the cross-ownership rules, arguing that such a move is essential if the industry is to sustain the quality of its news coverage.

Gloria Tristani: A Clinton appointee to the FCC, Tristani plans to resign imminently, though her term does not expire until June 2003. Her departure leaves three Republicans and one Democrat on the FCC, all appointed by Bush, who will now appoint a Democrat to replace her. Of course, not all Democrats are curmudgeons. David Goodfriend, a Clinton-era FCC adviser, has said that only a "pretty cynical" observer would think that going on corporate junkets could bias the agency's decision-making. Wonder how many times he went to Cancun?

Watch What You Say About Banamex

Last month, when Citigroup bought Banamex, the second largest bank in Mexico, the deal was praised as good for the Mexican people and good for the banks. Citigroup vice chairman Robert Rubin told the press that the deal was the result of an overture from Banamex chairman Roberto Hernández Ramirez, who is worth $1.3 billion and has been promised a seat on the Citigroup board. On May 18, The New York Times faithfully regurgitated Hernández's rags-to-riches success story.

But the fruit vendor turned billionaire has a dark side. According to statements made in 2000 by Al Giordano, publisher of the Mexican-based NarcoNews.com, Hernández has also been called a money launderer and a drug dealer. Giordano says he has reviewed published photos and testimony suggesting that Hernández has shared his Yucatán beachfront with the boats and planes of the cocaine trade.

Hernández has denied the allegations since they were first reported in 1997 by the Mexican newspaper Por Esto! Last summer, after failing in his efforts to get Por Esto! prosecuted in Mexico, the banker decided to sue his critics in New York. He hired Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a firm that has represented alleged money launderers in the past, to file a libel suit on behalf of Banamex. His lawyer calls the portrayal of Hernández and Banamex as drug traffickers "utterly false," and claims that Giordano's comments "injured Banamex's business reputation" -- a conclusion which seems especially odd now that Banamex has been snapped up by Citigroup for $12.5 billion.

Wherever he found his money, Hernández has enough of it to sue Narco News for years -- or at least until the Web site shuts down. But it would be a mistake to underestimate my friend Giordano, a respected reporter and activist who plans to defend himself against the libel charges. In what is shaping up to be the summer's most entertaining media trial, Giordano will appear in New York State Supreme Court on July 20, where he plans to throw curve balls during the first round of oral arguments in the case.

In his motion to dismiss, Giordano chronicles his lifelong commitment to free speech and claims that every one of his supposedly libelous statements is what the courts call an opinion, because in each case he cited the facts on which his opinion was based. Via e-mail, Giordano wrote that the opinion defense has solid precedents, including a case in which an umpire sued Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for mocking his calls as "ludicrous" and incompetent. Because Steinbrenner referred to specifics to back up his opinion, his statement was found to be not defamatory. Giordano says, "We razzed the umpire -- in this case, the government, which leaves certain white-collar traffickers alone."

Attorney Thomas Lesser, who represents Narco News, also filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the court cannot allow Banamex to sue the Web site in New York for content uploaded in Mexico. According to Lesser, that would be tantamount to giving any libel plaintiff permission to sue any Web site anywhere in the world -- a precedent that would seriously threaten free speech.

In its response, Akin Gump calls Lesser's argument a "straw man" and paints Giordano as having superhuman powers to raise money and affect public opinion. The plaintiff also claims jurisdiction in New York because Giordano has business contacts and does fundraising here.

It's too early to call a winner, but as of this week, Giordano will stop posting new reports on his Web site. When he arrives in New York, he intends to dispense with the technicalities and turn the spotlight on the drug trade, which is the heart of the case. "We may be out-hollered and out-dollared," he quips, "but we're not outsmarted."

Unlike Hernández, who Giordano says is "hiding behind his bank," the journalist will step up to the plate. "Just showing my face," he says, "will speak volumes about which side of this dispute is telling the truth." Given his passionate opposition to the drug war, Giordano should have plenty of fans cheering from the bleachers.

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