THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 2004
BASIC FACTS AWOL: Phew! Thank goodness! That was a close one! Sighs of relief emerged from newsrooms as the Bush AWOL story dropped from the radar. (No reference to the topic in todays Post or Times.) Are news orgs scared by this dangerous story? Were not sure, but their performance this week has broken records for sheer ineptitudeand for politicization. The facts in this case are fairly simple. But news orgs have created major confusion by the inept way theyve handled the case.
How simple are the facts in this case? Lets review. There is little evidence that Bush served from May 1972 through May 1973unless you accept that torn document. (The New York Times does. So does ABC.) From May through November 1972, Bush was living in Alabama. But two superiors have said that he didnt show up for duty in the Alabama Guard. After that, Bush returned to Houston. But on May 2, 1973, Bushs superiors at Ellington air base declined to fill out his annual evaluation, saying hed been absent the previous year. But according to the 2000 Bush campaign, that mysterious torn document supports the claim that Bush served regularly starting in November 1972. If you accept the crucial torn document, Bushs problem is fairly minor. But if the torn document isnt OK, Bush likely missed a whole year.
In short, this case turns on that famous torn document. But incredibly, we havent seen a single news org refer to the document all week! Some news orgs have disregarded its validity, thereby saying that Bush missed a year. Others have accepted the document (without describing its shortcomings), thereby telling a less damaging story. But no one has actually described the torn document, or explained why they accept or reject it. Result? Contradictory accounts of the facts float around. And the public isnt told why this is.
Meanwhile, partisans (called news orgs) tell the story they like. Some try to help Bushand some try to hurt him. Just to establish the record, lets look at four key examples.
Lois Romano on Hardball: On Tuesday night, the Washington Posts Lois Romano appeared on the action adventure show, Hardball. The day before, she summarized the facts of the case in the Post. Heres how she limned it for Chris:
MATTHEWS: How could a person be not accounted for from May to May, from one year to the next? How could it be theres no records that could clearly specify the way in which the president did or did not fulfill his duties?We couldnt find the records, Romano said. And the White House has failed to produce it. Theres no record anywhere, she said. But in the spring of 2000, the Bush campaign did produce a recordthe famous torn document. Indeed, George Lardner described the famous document in Romanos own Post on 11/3/00. Clearly, the Washington Post has now decided to disregard the crucial document. But Romano wont even say that the document exists, and fails to say why the Post disregards it. In so doing, she helps create mammoth confusion and shows basic unfairness to the Bush camp. And one more thing: Romano avoids the possibility that the Bush campaign produced a bogus military document. The White House has failed to produce a record? In fact, the Bush camp did produce a record. The Post just wont say what it was.
Scott Lindlaw of the Associated Press: For a ludicrous, Bush-friendly account of the facts, lets visit the hapless AP. On February 3, Scott Lindlaw filed the APs latest in-kind donation to the Bush campaign. Amazingly, this is the APs official account of the facts:
LINDLAW: Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard in 1968 and spent most of his service time based near Houston. In May 1972 he requested and received a three-month assignment with the Alabama National Guard so he could serve as political director on the Senate campaign of Winton Red Blount, a family friend.This delusional account was sent to papers all over the country. To read it, one would think that only a three-month period is in question (presumably, May through July 1972). The AP has filed similar, deluded, Bush-friendly accounts of this matter for the past four years (for example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/20/04). Liberal bias, anyone?
Terry Moran, ABC News: On February 3, Terry Moran reported the facts for Peter Jennings. Earlier, Jennings had a small cow over claims that Bush failed to serve. Deftly, Terry stayed on Peters good side with this Bush-friendly rendition:
MORAN: After more than 30 years, the facts of the presidents military service are murky and in dispute In May 1972, Lieutenant Bush asked for and received permission to be transferred to a reserve unit in Alabama, to work on a Republican Senate campaign. There is no official record Mr. Bush ever showed up for duty in Alabama. And the commander of the unit, General William Turnipseed, told reporters during the 2000 campaign he had no recollection of ever seeing him. Today, Turnipseed told ABC News, I dont know if he showed up in Alabama or not. He could have, I just dont know. On the campaign trail in 2000, Mr. Bush dismissed the charges.Please note: When he says that Bush show[ed] up for duty 19 times between November 72 and June 73, Moran is accepting the validity of the torn document. But he doesnt explain how shaky the document is, and he doesnt say why he has decided to credit it. Meanwhile, Morans report is notable for one reason; he quotes General Turnipseed changing his story. During Campaign 2000, Turnipseed repeatedly insisted that Bush hadnt served in Alabama, saying he was 99 percent sure.
But there are major problems with Morans account. For one thing, Turnipseeds second in command, Captain Kenneth Lott, also told newspapers in 2000 that Bush didnt appear in Alabama. Moran omits that evidence. And he fails to note that Bushs Houston superiors said, in real time, that Bush failed to show up there too. Their report contradicts the helpful torn documentso Moran omits their report from the record. Nor does Moran mention the fact that Bush was suspended from flight duty in 1972 for failing to take his annual physical. In short, Moran gives an absurdly one-sided, Bush-friendly account. Liberal bias, anyone?
Walter Robinson, Boston Globe: In todays Globe, Walter Robinsons revisits this issue on which he reported during Campaign 2000. Robinson presents a damaging summary of the evidencea summary suggesting that Bush missed a year. But Robinson, like Romano, simply omits the Bush camps claims about the torn document. In his original report on 5/31/00, Robinson described the torn document and its shortcomings (text below). But today, the torn document has been disappeared. Todays Globe reader has no way of knowing that the torn document even exists.
SummaryWhats a citizen to do: Did Bush skip a year in the National Guard? What are the actual facts of the case? Confusion reigns, due to the press corps increasingly politicized recitations. Some scribes, like ABCs Moran, omit the facts that are harmful to Bush. Others simply deep-six the torn document, producing a summary that cuts against Bush. Their readers arent even told that the document exists. Result? Contradictory accounts of the factsand massive confusion for the public.
Meanwhile, partisans link to the stories they like. On Tuesday, Eric Alterman said that ABC was lying for Bush and summarized Robinsonthereby offering an account of the facts which strongly cut against Bush. Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivansaying theres not much therelinked to an absurdly Bush-friendly account produced by Brooks Jackson at factcheck.org, a brand-new Annenberg operation. How absurd is Jacksons account? He lavishes time on those two Bush friendsfriends who recall Bush saying he was pulling Guard duty. But incredibly, other evidence sleeps with the fishes. Incredibly, Jackson doesnt mention the May 1973 report in which Bushs superiors at Ellington air base said hed been absent for the whole year. Its simply astounding that this report was produced by a man who was, until recently, CNNs ballyhooed fact-checking star. Annenberg should be embarrassed to have this laughable report on its site.
What are the actual facts of the case? Politicized, bowdlerized accounts now reign. If you want to harm Bush, you dump the torn document. If you want to help him, you dump the Houston report. The Post and the Globe reject the torn documentbut dont so much as explain its existence. ABC accepts the torn document, but doesnt explain how shaky it is. Meanwhile, no one seems to have the courage to examine that puzzling document itself. If its valid, it seems to mean that Bush served. And it its fakewell, dont even ask. Your reporters are too scared to go there.
THE WAY WE WERE: Today, almost all accounts of the facts are slickly editedsome to help Bush, some to hurt him. Back in Campaign 2000, by contrast, writers like Robinson let readers see the contradictions in the evidence. Heres how he described the torn document then. He notes that, if the torn doc is valid, it contradicts the Houston report which said that Bush had been absent:
ROBINSON (5/23/00): During his search, Lloyd said, the only other paperwork he discovered was a single torn page bearing Bushs social security number and numbers awarding some points for Guard duty. But the partial page is undated. If it represents the year in question, it leaves unexplained why Bushs two superior officers would have declared him absent for the full year.If it represents the year in question. Back then, Robinson acknowledged that the evidence was contradictory and unclear. Today, Globe readers arent even told that the torn doc existsand arent told why the Globe has deep-sixed it.
FINAL POINT: Has the White House dumped the torn document itself? The White House doesnt seem to have cited the doc this past week. Does the White House stand behind the Bush campaigns claims about the torn document? News orgshappily selecting the facts that they likedont seem inclined to go there.