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[Don't Quote Me]

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Cheap shot

The Globe's David Warsh takes aim at John Kerry's war record

by Dan Kennedy

Give David Warsh this much: in his Boston Globe column last Sunday, he made no attempt to hide how little he had to go on before speculating that maybe -- just possibly -- John Kerry had committed a "war crime" 27 years ago by shooting to death a helpless, wounded Vietnamese soldier.

By cobbling together a few intriguing but minor inconsistencies, Warsh offered a grotesque theory of how Kerry won a Silver Star and later became a leader of the antiwar movement. Even worse, Warsh floated this unsupportable theory in the final days of Kerry's bruising re-election battle with Governor Bill Weld.

Warsh claims that he regrets the timing, and adds that he plans to revisit the issue after the election. But given how little he has to back up his speculations, his real regret should be that he wrote anything in the first place.

The fallout has been intense, and not just from the Kerry camp. James Carroll, a freelance Globe columnist whose recent New Yorker profile of Kerry was cited by Warsh, wrote in his Tuesday Globe column that Warsh had violated the "honor of journalism," and that the paper's editors had exercised poor judgment in running Warsh's piece. And staffer Charles Sennott, who wrote a lengthy profile of Kerry last month, is furious -- not only that Warsh ignored Sennott's misgivings, but that he cited Sennott's work twice, the second time after Sennott had asked him not to. (Warsh says he did so "very reluctantly," at editor Matt Storin's request.)

"I really think that what Warsh wrote was dishonest, disingenuous, and gutless," Sennott told the Phoenix, in an unusually harsh display of anger even by newsroom standards.

The central factoid of Warsh's column disintegrated while the ink was still wet. He had quoted Tom Belodeau, the rear gunner on Kerry's boat, as saying that he (Belodeau) had wounded the Viet Cong soldier whom Kerry subsequently killed, the first time anyone has suggested that Kerry dispatched an injured man. But at a Sunday news conference at which Kerry and retired admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. blasted Warsh (reported on the front page of Monday's Globe), Belodeau made it clear that Warsh had misunderstood him.

"This man was not lying on the ground," Belodeau said of the Viet Cong soldier, who was armed with a rocket-launcher. "He was more than capable of destroying that boat and everything on it. Senator Kerry did not give him that opportunity. For that reason, myself and three other people are here today."

According to Sennott, the account Belodeau offered at Sunday's news conference was consistent with what Belodeau told Sennott during a two-hour interview, as well as with numerous naval records that Sennott examined while he was researching his profile of Kerry.

Warsh is unrepentant, and says his interview with Belodeau left a strong impression on him. "I attached a high value to his words that day," he says. "I guarantee you that's what he told me." Warsh also defends his right to speculate, saying of the "war crime" passage: "It clearly is a possibility. But I just don't know. I don't think anyone is ever going to know. I think I wrote pretty clearly that there was a wide range of possibilities."

The 52-year-old Warsh, who worked at the Wall Street Journal and Forbes magazine before coming to the Globe in 1978, is an intelligent, experienced journalist best known for his eclectic Business-section columns on economics. Although Kerry derided Warsh's own Vietnam service as that of a "desk jockey," Warsh insists he saw plenty of action covering the war for two years for Pacific Stars & Stripes and Newsweek.

Storin, who read and signed off on the column before publication, continues to stand behind it, saying that Warsh "takes on-the-record quotes and documents, then expresses his opinion about them. It's a column. It's his opinion." Storin (who covered Vietnam as the Globe's Asian correspondent in the 1970s) says Warsh's column was actually supposed to run on October 24, but that he decided to hold it after receiving assurances from Kerry-campaign official Tom Vallely that Warsh would have an opportunity to interview Kerry and re-interview Bellodeau. That, Storin adds, never happened. (Attempts to obtain comment from the Kerry campaign were unsuccessful.)

"I am more comfortable about why we ran the column than I would be explaining why I killed it," Storin says.

Marvin Kalb, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, at Harvard's Kennedy School, agrees with Storin's decision to run the column, but says that Warsh "brought a degree of dishonor not upon the senator but upon himself and the profession."

But Bob Steele, director of the Poynter Institute's Ethics Program, says Warsh's speculations simply shouldn't have run without considerably more evidence. "These are profound, personal, and highly pejorative speculations that can cause great harm," he says. "I don't think it is appropriate or logical in this case to draw a distinction between a reporter or a columnist. The power of the words is basically the same."

Steele is right. Storin's reluctance to interfere with a columnist's prerogatives was misplaced in this case; the minor inconsistencies Warsh documents aren't nearly enough to warrant such a foul attack on Kerry's reputation, no matter how carefully hedged.

Warsh was so far out of bounds that the backlash will probably help Kerry's campaign, but that's not the point. The point is that his column never should have seen the light of day.

Check out the Don't Quote Me archive.

Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site: http://www1.shore.net/~dkennedy/

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