Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler Banner Graphic
Caveat lector

BEING WRONG KEEPS YOU ON! Ritter was right about WMD. Result? He’s been dumped from the airwaves:


TORN OVER DOCUMENTS: How bad has reporting on Bush-and-the-Guard really been? Let’s start at, a site we’re careful to read every day. Yes, Josh Marshall is invaluable. But he was wrong about Bush-and-the-Guard in yesterday’s post—and the fault lies with two major newspapers.

Josh was working from Lois Romano’s report in Tuesday’s Washington Post. “The Post points out that there is no definitive proof of Bush’s non-attendance,” he wrote. “But there is an utter lack of any documentation for his showing up for service [for roughly a year] and the officer he was supposed to report to during the key period in question continues to insist that he never laid eyes on him.” One thing is true, of course. There really is a “lack of any documentation for [Bush’s] showing up”—in the Romano story. But that’s because Romano failed to mention the Bush camp’s crucial “torn document.” If the torn document really is valid, then it tends to support Bush’s long-standing claim that he showed up for duty, in Alabama and Texas. Amazingly, Romano failed to mention the famous torn document at any point in yesterday’s story. Marshall’s misstatement shows how readers can be misled when scribes fail to cite basic evidence.

At any rate, Romano rejected the crucial torn document. By contrast, Jo Thomas accepted the document in the New York Times (11/3/00)—in a report which offered the Times’ basic account of the facts. Because Thomas accepted the torn document’s validity, she judged that Bush returned to Guard duty fairly quickly, in November 1972. Bush’s attendance problems are relatively mild—if the torn doc is judged valid.

We also read Eric Alterman every day; indeed, we begged you to buy his book last year. But he also misjudged the state of this story in yesterday’s Altercation. Alterman hammered ABC News for saying this on Sunday night: “Reporters investigating Mr. Bush’s military career found that, while he missed some weekends of training, he later made up for them and was eventually honorably discharged.” But that is a perfectly valid account if you accept the “torn document.” In Sunday’s broadcast, ABC did what news orgs routinely do—it repeated the New York Times’ account of the facts. And let’s say it again: The Times account is basically accurate if the torn document is valid.

What makes this story so confusing? Weird reporting by the Post and the Times. Yesterday, the Post disregarded the crucial “torn document,” but failed to note that the document even exists. This strange omission makes the case against Bush seem stronger than it currently is. By contrast, the Times accepted the document in November 2000, but failed to explain how shaky it is. This makes the case for Bush seem too strong. Readers, this story turns on that crucial “torn document.” But the Times failed to say why the doc was accepted; now the Post fails to say why the doc was rejected. Until we get a definitive study of the torn document, it will be hard to judge the facts of this case.

Meanwhile, let’s pause to note an obvious point: If the “torn document” turns out to be fake, this story becomes much more serious. Indeed, if the “torn document” turns out to be bogus, this story becomes quite an A-bomb. This may be why papers are tiptoe-ing hard, as we’ll discuss later on.

One last problem with Alterman’s post—his praise for the Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson. “[A]s I explained in Newsday, only one reporter, the Boston Globe’s Walter V. Robinson, investigated the charge with any kind of probity,” he wrote, “and he found that Bush missed not ‘weekends of training’ but approximately eighteen months.” But alas! It’s dangerous to put Walter Robinson’s name anywhere near the word “probity.” As we’ve noted many times, Robinson’s reporting on Candidate Gore was baldly disingenuous. He wrote astonishing articles in the spring of 2000, then drove a penultimate nail in Gore’s coffin with his tortured, Bush-produced claim that Gore had told Another Big Lie about his mother-in-law’s arthritis pills (a story he published on 9/19/00). Robinson has a major jones about dishonest public officials—indeed, he sometimes seems willing to stretch all bounds of probity to show how “dishonest” they really are! Did Robinson “f[i]nd that Bush missed approximately eighteen months” of service? Yes, he did, in his 10/31/00 report. But as we noted just this Monday, Robinson achieved that pleasing outcome by ignoring what he himself had written in his original 5/23/00 report (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/2/04). Maybe there’s a valid reason why Robinson changed his original story. But here at THE HOWLER, we know of no journalist—that includes Ceci Connolly—in whom we have less confidence.

How serious was Bush’s attendance problem? It all turns on that crucial “torn document.” And the Post and the Times have created confusion by careless handling of the torn document. We’re told that experts are going to publish further work about the torn doc. Until then, this story will be hard to judge. The Post, Times and Globe have divergent accounts. It’s quite hard to know which is accurate.

A TALE OF THREE CITIES: Three newspapers, three different accounts. The current state of the record:

New York Times: Bush missed duty from 5/72 through 11/72; showed up for duty in 11/72 (Jo Thomas, 11/3/00).

Washington Post: Bush missed duty from 5/72 through 5/73; showed up for duty after that (Lois Romano, 2/3/04).

Boston Globe: Bush (may have) missed duty from 5/72 right through his discharge in autumn 1973 (Walter Robinson, 10/31/00).

Six, twelve or eighteen months! Go ahead—take your pick!

UPDATE—THE POST AND THE TIMES JUST KEEP BUNGLING: How inept is the Washington “press corps?” Just read Mike Allen’s report on Bush-and-the-Guard in this morning’s Post. Yesterday, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan savaged Dems who “bring up this issue.” But as Allen summarizes the facts of the case, he hopelessly bungles, saying this:

ALLEN (2/4/04): Bush’s aides did not release new information to clear up questions about a one-year gap in the public record of Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. Bush and his aides have said he reported to an Alabama unit during the period, from May 1972 to May 1973.
Allen bungles hopelessly. In fact, Bush has said that he reported for duty in both Alabama and Texas during the period in question. (Bush was clearly back in Texas by the end of 1972.) And as he continues, the Postman keeps bungling. Do they ever get anything right?
ALLEN (continuing directly): No paper record has surfaced that documents Bush’s attendance. A former officer of the Alabama unit, to whom Bush was supposed to have reported, repeated on Monday to The Washington Post his assertion that he could not recall seeing Bush on the base. The officer, retired Brig. Gen. William Turnipseed, hedged from a similar statement he made to the Boston Globe in 2000, saying he could not recall if he had been on base much at that time.
Let us count the ways! “No paper record has surfaced,” Allen says, failing to mention the famous torn document (and failing to say why the Post disregards it). Meanwhile, he cites Turnipseed’s recollection about service in Alabama—but fails to say that Bush’s superiors at Houston’s Ellington air base filed an official record in May 1973 saying that Bush had been absent from that post for a full year. (Bush claims he served at Ellington during that period.) Finally, Allen suggests that Turnipseed “hedged” his prior statements. That is entirely unclear. In 2000, Turnipseed said he was “99 percent certain” that Bush hadn’t appeared for duty in Alabama. It’s not at all clear that Turnipseed’s statement changes that judgment at all.

Allen’s account of the facts is just hopeless. But at the New York Times, cowardice reigns. In this morning’s paper, Elisabeth Bumiller and David Halbfinger report McClellan’s complaints, but they take a total dive on the facts. The scribes write an 1100-word report. But incredibly, here is their only attempt to summarize the facts of the case:

BUMILLER/HALBFINGER (2/4/04): In March 1969, John Kerry, a 25-year-old Navy lieutenant, reached down from the boat he was piloting in Vietnam’s treacherous Bay Hap River and in a spray of enemy fire pulled a soldier out of the water to safety…That very same month, George W. Bush was on far-safer ground in Valdosta, Ga., learning to fly fighter planes for the Texas National Guard, a coveted post that greatly reduced any risk that he would be sent to Vietnam—and one that he might not have obtained had his father not been a member of Congress.

Mr. Bush went on to miss a number of National Guard training sessions, although his spokesmen say he made up the dates and his records show he was honorably discharged.

That’s it! That’s their entire summary of the facts! Bush “missed a number of sessions,” the scribes say, “although his spokesmen say he made up the dates!” How on earth can a New York Times reader have any idea of what is at issue? Bush missed a number of sessions, the Times says. But was that number 3—or was it 3000? Bumiller and Halbfinger hide behind desks, hoping this will all go away.

Allen’s work is simply hopeless. Can members of any other profession bungle basic facts so thoroughly? If engineers bungled simple facts that way, all their bridges would crash to the ground, and they’d quickly be sued and prosecuted. Meanwhile, let’s review the work at the feckless Times. Last Monday, “Kit” Seelye told readers that Bush was being challenged for “his unexplained absence from the Air National Guard between April 1972 and September 1973.” Five days later, Halbfinger changed those facts, without explanation; he said Bush was being challenged because he “did not appear for duty from May to November 1972.” Today, Bumiller and Halbfinger hide behind desks, only saying Bush “missed a number of sessions.” How is a reader supposed to know what is at issue in this dispute? Readers, go ahead and emit low chuckles as you gaze on your “paper of record.”

Can we offer one final thought about the way this tale has been covered? Let’s go back to that puzzling “torn document.” Clearly, the Post has refused to credit the doc; today, the Times seems to back away in its vagueness. But if the famous torn document is judged invalid, an awkward fact is thereby created—it means that the Bush campaign, for the past four years, has been peddling a military document that is phony. Our guess would be that none of these papers wants to step into that ugly mire. Our guess? Both these papers are hiding behind desks, hoping this story expires.

BEING WRONG KEEPS YOU ON: All hail Brian Lamb for having Scott Ritter on Washington Journal last Friday! Ritter did a full thirty minutes on the program, answering questions about WMDs. And wouldn’t you know it? Brian’s first caller, from Philadelphia, asked Scott a very good question:

CALLER: Yes, Mr. Ritter. I remember you being interviewed on all the late night cable talk shows and what I remember is you were the only one prior to the war who said that there’s no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In other words, you’re the only one who was accurate. Why have you all of a sudden disappeared from all these shows? Gosh, for the last year, I’ve wondered what ever happened to Scott Ritter, the only guy who seemed to know what was going on? I’m just wondering whether you were silenced in this regard? Have the networks blacklisted you? Or is there a reason why your opinions aren’t getting proper airplay?
Good question! After all, if one observer turns out to be right—and everyone else turns out to be wrong—you’d almost imagine that major news orgs would want to talk to that first guy! But that’s not how it works in this “press corps!” Just so you’ll know, here’s Scott’s answer:
RITTER: Well, it’s probably a question best posed to the producers and the bookers at the various television shows and radio talk shows. I’ve always been confident that I’m saying things that are factually sound, based upon the truth, that I’m not spinning them for anyone’s benefit. Unfortunately, I don’t believe the mainstream media acted responsibly in regard to Iraq. Back in the fall of 2002, I was belittled, I was called a traitor, I was called crazy—Paula Zahn of CNN accused me of drinking Saddam Hussein’s Kool-Aid for making accurate statements in response to aluminum tubes and uranium allegedly coming from Niger. I think we have a problem here in that the media is culpable for the misleading of the American public. They bought into the Bush administration’s rhetoric and war fervor, they sold the war to the American public, and now they have to deal with the fact that they’re the ones that were out there beating the war drums and you have this guy, Scott Ritter, who was saying something different and—maybe they just don’t know how to deal with me. I think, though, the facts are on the table and the people who stuck to the facts are the ones who have credibility and hopefully people will realize that, on the issue of Iraq, I have enormous credibility.
Say what? Paula Zahn said something like that? Paula Zahn, paid millions to look-good-faking-news? In whose mouth table spread wouldn’t melt?

To his great credit, Lamb returned to this question moments later. What shows have you been on in recent weeks? Brian asked. Ritter mentioned a spot with Anderson Cooper, and an earlier CNBC gig. But time out! We decided to do a HOWLER fact-check. How many shows has Ritter been on? You know? Scott Ritter, the guy who got the facts right! According to the Nexis archives, here is Ritter’s total oeuvre over the past six months:

  1. Wolf Blitzer Reports, CNN, 1/30/04 (the night of Ritter’s C-SPAN appearance)
  2. Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees, CNN, 1/8/04
  3. Capital Report, CNBC, 9/30/03
That’s it! You can see how hard your “press corps” has pushed to figure out the real facts on Iraq!

Readers, Ritter’s been dumped because he was right. Within this hopeless, Potemkin “press corps,” you only get to stay on the air if you’re conventionally wrong! The people “who stuck to the facts” may have credibility—but they surely aren’t going to get any air time! And by the way, just how will such people get treated when they do end up on TV? It wasn’t just Zahn who was trashing Scott Ritter. Incredibly, here’s the way Gloria Borger previewed that Capital Report session. Words fail when one sees work like this:

BORGER (9/30/03): And later: Scott Ritter, the last man in America to defend Saddam Hussein. Why he’s more insistent than ever that there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Stay with us. You’re watching Capital Report on CNBC.
Astonishing, isn’t it? But so it goes in this fake, slimy “press corps.” If you’re right, you’re even more of a traitor, and slimy people like Gloria Borger will slime your decency on TV. (By the way: Anyone who has watched Borger’s decline in the past five years will find this comment all too typical.) Faced with this, we pose one question: How long will we, the American people, accept people like Borger at the head of our discourse? How long will we let the Zahns and the Borgers sing the praises of those who were wrong?