WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 2004
TORN OVER DOCUMENTS: How bad has reporting on Bush-and-the-Guard really been? Lets start at talkingpointsmemo.com, a site were careful to read every day. Yes, Josh Marshall is invaluable. But he was wrong about Bush-and-the-Guard in yesterdays postand the fault lies with two major newspapers.
Josh was working from Lois Romanos report in Tuesdays Washington Post. The Post points out that there is no definitive proof of Bushs 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 [Bushs] showing upin the Romano story. But thats because Romano failed to mention the Bush camps crucial torn document. If the torn document really is valid, then it tends to support Bushs 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 yesterdays story. Marshalls 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 documents validity, she judged that Bush returned to Guard duty fairly quickly, in November 1972. Bushs attendance problems are relatively mildif 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 yesterdays Altercation. Alterman hammered ABC News for saying this on Sunday night: Reporters investigating Mr. Bushs 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 Sundays broadcast, ABC did what news orgs routinely doit repeated the New York Times account of the facts. And lets 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, lets 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 well discuss later on.
One last problem with Altermans posthis praise for the Boston Globes Walter Robinson. [A]s I explained in Newsday, only one reporter, the Boston Globes 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! Its dangerous to put Walter Robinsons name anywhere near the word probity. As weve noted many times, Robinsons reporting on Candidate Gore was baldly disingenuous. He wrote astonishing articles in the spring of 2000, then drove a penultimate nail in Gores coffin with his tortured, Bush-produced claim that Gore had told Another Big Lie about his mother-in-laws arthritis pills (a story he published on 9/19/00). Robinson has a major jones about dishonest public officialsindeed, 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 theres a valid reason why Robinson changed his original story. But here at THE HOWLER, we know of no journalistthat includes Ceci Connollyin whom we have less confidence.
How serious was Bushs 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. Were 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. Its 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).Six, twelve or eighteen months! Go aheadtake your pick!
UPDATETHE POST AND THE TIMES JUST KEEP BUNGLING: How inept is the Washington press corps? Just read Mike Allens report on Bush-and-the-Guard in this mornings 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): Bushs aides did not release new information to clear up questions about a one-year gap in the public record of Bushs 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 Bushs 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 Turnipseeds recollection about service in Alabamabut fails to say that Bushs superiors at Houstons 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 hadnt appeared for duty in Alabama. Its not at all clear that Turnipseeds statement changes that judgment at all.
Allens account of the facts is just hopeless. But at the New York Times, cowardice reigns. In this mornings paper, Elisabeth Bumiller and David Halbfinger report McClellans 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 Vietnams 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 Vietnamand one that he might not have obtained had his father not been a member of Congress.Thats it! Thats 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 3or was it 3000? Bumiller and Halbfinger hide behind desks, hoping this will all go away.
Allens 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 theyd quickly be sued and prosecuted. Meanwhile, lets 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? Lets 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 createdit 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 wouldnt you know it? Brians 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 theres no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In other words, youre the only one who was accurate. Why have you all of a sudden disappeared from all these shows? Gosh, for the last year, Ive wondered what ever happened to Scott Ritter, the only guy who seemed to know what was going on? Im just wondering whether you were silenced in this regard? Have the networks blacklisted you? Or is there a reason why your opinions arent getting proper airplay?Good question! After all, if one observer turns out to be rightand everyone else turns out to be wrongyoud almost imagine that major news orgs would want to talk to that first guy! But thats not how it works in this press corps! Just so youll know, heres Scotts answer:
RITTER: Well, its probably a question best posed to the producers and the bookers at the various television shows and radio talk shows. Ive always been confident that Im saying things that are factually sound, based upon the truth, that Im not spinning them for anyones benefit. Unfortunately, I dont 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 crazyPaula Zahn of CNN accused me of drinking Saddam Husseins 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 administrations rhetoric and war fervor, they sold the war to the American public, and now they have to deal with the fact that theyre the ones that were out there beating the war drums and you have this guy, Scott Ritter, who was saying something different andmaybe they just dont 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 wouldnt 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 Ritters total oeuvre over the past six months:
Readers, Ritters been dumped because he was right. Within this hopeless, Potemkin press corps, you only get to stay on the air if youre conventionally wrong! The people who stuck to the facts may have credibilitybut they surely arent 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 wasnt just Zahn who was trashing Scott Ritter. Incredibly, heres 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 hes more insistent than ever that there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Stay with us. Youre watching Capital Report on CNBC.Astonishing, isnt it? But so it goes in this fake, slimy press corps. If youre right, youre even more of a traitor, and slimy people like Gloria Borger will slime your decency on TV. (By the way: Anyone who has watched Borgers 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?