Off the Record

“The truth doesn’t smell like a dead skunk,” said Phil Parlock.

Mr. Parlock, a real-estate agent from Huntington, W.Va., doesn’t have much in common with Dan Rather: He’s a local character, not a national institution; a wide-open conservative, not an accused secret liberal. But like the CBS anchor, Mr. Parlock has a taste for the folksy figure of speech. And like Mr. Rather, Mr. Parlock has been getting clobbered online lately.

“North is where north is,” Mr. Parlock said on his mobile phone, crackling from digital to analog along a West Virginia highway. “The truth is where the truth is, period.”

In the current Time magazine, Mr. Parlock and his 3-year-old daughter, Sophia, join the embattled Mr. Rather as evidence of the opposite proposition. Under the cover headline “Who Owns the Truth?,” the magazine argues that the national discourse has devolved into hopeless subjectivity, a war between Blue Truth and Red Truth: “Red Truth looks at Bush and sees a savior; Blue Truth sees a zealot who must be stopped. In both worlds there are no accidents, only conspiracies, and facts have value only to the extent that they support the truth.”

The Parlocks’ contribution to this battle of inscrutable claims—this “foaming free-for-all,” in Time ’s trademark tones—was to show up at a John Edwards appearance in West Virginia Sept. 16, armed with a stack of Bush-Cheney signs: “Sophia Parlock dissolved into tears after having her Bush-Cheney sign torn up by Kerry-Edwards supporters. The picture was mailed out by the Republican National Committee after conservative Matt Drudge spotted a wire photo …. [T]he Democratic Underground posted a story claiming that her father is a Bush campaign operative who used his child to create a partisan photo op, having done the same with a different kid four years ago against Al Gore. No incident is too small to produce its own parallel truths.”

Heady pomo stuff from the heirs of Henry Luce. Newsweeklies, like major newspapers, have a proud tradition of what Mickey Kaus has dubbed the “Neutral Story Line”—campaign coverage that nominally expresses an opinion but doesn’t favor a candidate. Deploring the negativity of the campaign ads, for instance, usually does the trick.

But now Time has expanded that evenhandedness into the dimension of no-handedness: “[E]very charge, however fair or false, gets BlackBerried and instant messaged in a Darwinian democracy of ideas.”

So put down that Treo and relax, trail junkies! Whatever facts you might scrounge up are contingent and ultimately meaningless.

Unless they’re not. In the Parlock case, for instance, the supposedly parallel truths converge fairly quickly. “It’s pretty much in sync with what Phil’s trying to tell people,” said Randy Snyder, who snapped the photo of the weeping Sophia for the Associated Press.

Mr. Snyder was shooting the rally for A.P. on his day off from his job as a photographer at the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. He was familiar with the Parlock clan, having seen Mr. Parlock and various combinations of his 10 children at events around town—most recently at a Bush campaign affair the week before. That day, Mr. Snyder said he took the family’s omnipresence into account, and “I didn’t move any images of his kids.”

But a week later, when little Sophie disappeared behind a wall of Kerry-Edwards signs and reappeared crying and clutching the shreds of her own sign, Mr. Snyder said he figured the conflict was worth capturing. Without thinking much of it, he said, he decided to “let the state photo editor make the decision.”

“I didn’t even know what the heck the Drudge Report was,” Mr. Snyder said.

He also didn’t know that Mr. Parlock had a history of getting into the papers after scuffling at Democratic rallies. Similar accounts of sign-grabbing, one likewise involving his children, appeared after a Bill Clinton event in 1996 and an Al Gore event in 2000. And he’d been quoted in the press earlier this year, after someone allegedly fired a small-bore weapon at local Republican headquarters.

Still, Mr. Parlock’s overall public record is less that of a G.O.P. operative than of a run-of-the-mill publicity hound, a quote machine who’s gotten his name in print for stories about cell phones, a new Boy Scout climbing tower and his candidacy for school-board elections.

The conspiracy theories about a Republican agent provocateur tearing up the sign don’t hold up very well. Bloggers have been speculating that an unidentified man in some of Mr. Snyder’s photos—wearing a T-shirt from the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and holding scraps of little Sophie’s sign—could have been one of Mr. Parlock’s older sons in disguise.

But IUPAT spokesman Gavin McDonald said that the union has recognized the mystery figure as one of its members from West Virginia. “We’re taking the appropriate steps within our union rules and regulations to deal with the matter,” he added.

Confidential to the eight bylines on the Time essay: Off the Record needed all of three phone calls to get through the labyrinth of conflicting claims.

Actually, Time probably did sort out the evidence itself. There’s nothing necessarily wrong or unproven in the magazine’s account of the two truths—except maybe an unsupported plural suggesting multiple sign-tearing culprits. The trouble is with the frame story: There’s nothing irreconcilable about the twin versions of events, either.

Time ’s managing editor, Jim Kelly, said that the magazine didn’t literally mean to abdicate judgment. “‘Who Owns the Truth’ is really about who thinks they own the truth,” Mr. Kelly said.

But the notion that the truth has spun out of control is a dangerously comforting one. In the same issue of Time, Joe Klein offers an essay titled “Bush’s Iraq: A Powerful Fantasy,” laying out the Bush administration’s failures of policy and its refusal to admit to those failures. “Scott McClellan,” Mr. Klein writes, “is beginning to sound like Baghdad Bob, the infamous spokesman for Saddam who announced hallucinatory Iraqi victories as the American troops closed in on Baghdad.”

Toward the end, though, Mr. Klein raises a peculiar question: “Can John Kerry hold George Bush accountable for this mess? … Unless Kerry can come off with a succinct, and lethal, response to [Bush’s] vaporous but compelling platitudes, he will lose this election.”

But why is it John Kerry’s job to hold George Bush accountable? Why isn’t it Joe Klein’s job?

“I think what Joe was saying is that Kerry has fallen short in making clear to people that, in Joe’s view, Iraq policy so far has been a fiasco,” Mr. Kelly said.

This, alas, is where attempts at postmodern journalism go awry. Yes, the meaning of stories depends on their context. Yes, neutrality and objectivity are shaky constructs; yes, to write about the failures of the Bush administration is in some sense to declare oneself in favor of a Kerry administration. Yes, yes—and?

Feeling temporarily impotent under the onslaught of the bloggers, the press has decided to pretend it’s unimportant.

Yet the pose of intellectual disengagement, of bemused neutrality, is a position just like any other position. And if it means waiting for Mr. Kerry to step to the fore, perhaps we’d be better off with a different pose—something pre-postmodern, maybe, like pretending to hunger for the truth.

Speaking of assuming positions: Sept. 10 was a watershed moment in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference. That was the day that the University of Miami Hurricanes, newly added to the conference, beat Florida State in football, 16-10—marking the end of 12 years of all-but-unchallenged gridiron dominance by the Seminoles.

And that same day, on newsstands, new A.C.C. member Virginia Tech was challenging Florida State in a different arena: naked coeds.

This summer’s A.C.C. expansion—a two-school raid on the Big East—was “very controversial,” said Melissa Favorito in a phone interview. Ms. Favorito, a senior marketing major at Virginia Tech, appears on page 133 of the October issue of Playboy (published Sept. 10), kneeling in front of a rack of free weights with her bare bottom toward the camera.

Though the magazine’s cover line touts “COLLEGE GIRLS NUDE … ACC COEDS GO WILD,” Ms. Favorito represents a group of not-quite-A.C.C. coeds. Nearly one-fifth of the magazine’s “Girls of the ACC” were not yet conference members when photographers hit their campuses this past spring.

And most of that contribution came from Ms. Favorito’s schoolmates. While Miami is covered by a single snapshot, Virginia Tech has five representatives in the issue—as many as old-line A.C.C. members North Carolina, Wake Forest, and Duke combined. (Only Florida State, itself a 1992 arriviste, has more.)

“I know that when I was signing books, I wrote ‘Welcome to the A.C.C.’ next to my picture,” Ms. Favorito said.

The text in Playboy doesn’t address the tensions surrounding conference expansion, let alone the potential erotic distinctions between Girls of the A.C.C. and Girls Who Suddenly Find Themselves in the A.C.C.

But Ms. Favorito, who hails from Boston, said that people back home have called Virginia Tech and Miami “traitors” for bailing out on the Big East—a move that Boston College is expected to make in 2005.

In Ms. Favorito’s estimation, though, the conference change is worth it. “I actually think it’s going to have a really big effect on basketball season, because our basketball team typically doesn’t get a big sellout crowd,” she said. Now that the Hokies have the likes of Duke on the schedule, she said, her friends are already hurrying to get hoops tickets.

“I immediately think ‘sports’ when I hear ‘A.C.C.,’” Ms. Favorito said.