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Bush’s turn (continued)


THE BLOG TRIUMPHALISTS are shouting that it’s a victory for new media over old. Writing in the New York Post, John Podhoretz said that the discrediting of CBS’s 60 Minutes story on George W. Bush’s National Guard service was the result of a "populist revolution." Jay Currie wrote on TechCentralStation.com, "One day. That was all it took for the ranks of citizen journalists to swarm and then thoroughly discredit a story which ran in the New York Times, the Boston Globe and on a network news magazine." The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund called it a "watershed media moment."

Well, yes and no. There’s no doubt that conservative weblogs raised some serious questions about four memos that CBS featured in its report. (Currie’s allegation that the Times’ and the Globe’s reporting had also been discredited appears to be nothing more than a cheap shot.) The problem is that though many of those bloggers may believe they also answered those questions, a fair-minded observer would conclude otherwise.

The contents of the memos, purportedly typed by the late lieutenant colonel Jerry Killian in 1972 and ’73, are pretty damning. Among other things, they claim that Bush failed to comply with an order to undergo a physical, and that a superior officer, Colonel Walter "Buck" Staudt, had pressured Killian to "sugar coat" his evaluation of Bush. In the 60 Minutes report, Dan Rather did not reveal from whom CBS had received the memos, but he did say that the network had verified their authenticity. (He stood by the documents’ authenticity in follow-ups on the CBS Evening News on Friday and again on Monday.)

The same evening as the 60 Minutes broadcast, according to various accounts, someone posted a message to FreeRepublic.com, an ultraconservative Web site, charging that the memos couldn’t possibly have been typed in the early ’70s. The reason: typewriters in those days didn’t have the Times New Roman typeface, proportional spacing, and superscripting (as in the "th" in "111th") that are clearly visible in the Killian memos. That was picked up by conservative weblogs such as Power Line and Little Green Footballs. The proprietor of the latter, Charles Johnson, conducted what to my eyes was a fairly impressive test: he banged out one of the Killian memos on his computer, using Microsoft Word’s default settings, and found that it matched up perfectly.

But wait. Almost immediately liberals blogs, such as the Daily Kos, began producing evidence that top-of-the-line IBM typewriters from that era included all the features seen in the Killian memos. Some who must have far sharper eyesight than I do even went so far as to assert that Johnson’s test document differed in several key ways from the memos. What had seemed to be a fairly transparent case of forgery suddenly appeared in a new light. Clearly it was at least possible that Killian — or maybe a secretary, or one of the men who served under him — had typed those memos on an IBM typewriter, though computerized forgery still stood out as perhaps somewhat more plausible.

Then there was the battle of the experts. Particularly at issue was a forensic analyst named Philip Bouffard, who was quoted in the Washington Post and the New York Times as saying that the documents appeared to have been written on a computer. The Boston Globe had a scoop on Saturday, reporting that Bouffard had apparently changed his mind, and had found a document showing that the military had been testing an IBM typewriter with the capabilities in question as far back as 1969. "You can’t just say that this is definitively the mark of a computer," Bouffard was quoted as saying. But within hours, a weblog called INDC Journal was reporting that Bouffard had sent an e-mail complaining that the Globe had misrepresented what he’d said.

"What the Boston Globe did now sort of pisses me off, because now I have people calling me and e-mailing me, and calling me names, saying that I changed my mind. I did not change my mind at all!" according to the e-mail, which went on to say that Bouffard and his colleagues were "more convinced" that the memos had not been produced on a typewriter.

Bouffard’s incendiary e-mail was the talk of the blog world for several days. But on Tuesday, Bouffard responded to my e-mail query by saying that it was the headline he objected to, not to the way he had been treated in the article. That headline — AUTHENTICITY BACKED ON BUSH DOCUMENTS — did, in fact, make it look as though Bouffard had changed his mind, when he says that all he was really doing was "checking out some new information." Bill Ardolino, the blogger behind INDC Journal, told me by e-mail, "Well, that’s a bit surprising, as I presented his raw remarks without any alteration. I can somewhat understand why Bouffard would say that part of the story is ok, though, because the body of the Globe’s story quoted him with complete accuracy, if possibly selectively (as I highlighted on my blog). Unfortunately, it was the headline that was an outright lie. In no way was the ‘authenticity backed’ by Dr. Bouffard. The fact that that is deceptive is beyond question."

Mark Morrow, a deputy managing editor at the Globe, says that Bouffard also spoke with reporter Francie Latour — co-author of the Saturday piece — on Monday night. "He told her that having read the story now, that he has no problem with our story now, that he doesn’t feel that he was misquoted in any way," Morrow says. His remarks are consistent with what Bouffard told me.

"We might address the headline, which was more emphatic than the story was," Morrow adds, "and may have been the source of the tenor of the comment on the piece" — a reference to the blizzard of e-mails and phone calls to which the Globe had been subjected since the weekend. (On Wednesday, the Globe published a correction that said the headline "did not accurately reflect the content of the story.")

Of course, the lack of complete resolution over the typography issue didn’t stop anti-Kerry forces from pushing the story way beyond what was known. On Friday, Rush Limbaugh read on the air an anonymously sourced piece from the right-wing American Spectator’s Web site claiming that the documents may have come from the Democratic National Committee. Howie Carr, on his WRKO Radio (AM 680) talk show, called it a Kerry "dirty-tricks operation," on the basis of no evidence whatsoever.

It’s likely the mystery of the Killian memos will never be solved one way or the other, although it’s worth pointing out that neither Killian’s widow nor his son thinks they’re genuine; that Buck Staudt had been retired for a year and a half when he was supposedly pressuring Killian to "sugar coat" things; and that retired colonel Bobby Hodges, who’d told CBS he believed the memos were authentic, has since changed his mind. All those factors offer pretty strong evidence that the documents were forged. So does a Tuesday story in the Washington Post by Michael Dobbs and Howard Kurtz, in which CBS’s own expert, Marcel Matley, backed away. On Tuesday night came a new development: the Dallas Morning News reported that Killian’s former secretary, Marian Carr Knox, believes the documents are fake, but that they reflect actual memos that once existed. Stay tuned.

The bloggers deserve plenty of credit for raising the right questions; if they hadn’t, the authenticity of the Killian memos might never have been challenged. The fact remains, though, that the answers to those questions wouldn’t have come without a big assist from old media. The lesson: reporting still matters.

— DK

IT’S NEITHER surprising nor unexpected that the public is not getting the discussion it deserves. Despite Bush’s misguided and mismanaged war in Iraq, a sputtering economy, and legitimate questions about Kerry’s seeming inability to articulate in a compelling way what he would do differently, the media are mired in the same attack/counterattack paradigm that characterizes presidential-campaign coverage every four years.

But the fact that the swift-boat vets and the National Guard allegations have dominated campaign coverage in recent weeks is one thing; the way that different types of media cover them is another. The swift-boat story is Exhibit A. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, points out that the cable news channels, in particular, have all too often simply given a forum to various attackers, letting them have their say and washing their hands of the consequences, allowing the viewers back home to figure it out — even though they generally lack the information they need to do so. In contrast, the print media thoroughly discredited the swift-boat vets.

"Journalism should do more than be a conduit for allegations or even a forum for debate. It has a responsibility to figure out who’s telling the truth," says Rosenstiel. Speaking of the Swifties, he adds, "It seems to me that if something has been established as unsubstantiated, putting them on to answer that is fair, but continuing to put them on — if the common knowledge now is that these allegations are false, it’s not enough. Then you’re actually distorting the public knowledge."

The National Guard story represents a different kind of dilemma. Despite CBS’s problems, the overwhelming weight of the evidence about Bush appears to be true. But is it relevant? During the 2000 campaign, the Boston Globe was almost alone among the national media in pushing the Guard story. (You could chalk that up to liberal bias, except the paper also did some in-depth reporting about Al Gore’s reputed proclivity to stretch the truth.) This time, though, the National Guard story is getting much more play. On the surface, at least, this is odd. After all, Bush now has been president for three and a half years, and if nothing else, the public has had an opportunity to see what kind of commander-in-chief he’s been. Given that, shouldn’t the Guard story have been bigger in 2000 than it is in ’04?

"The answer to that is pretty simple," says Walter Robinson, editor of the Globe’s Spotlight Team. "Four years ago national security was not an issue. In fact, it was hardly an issue at all. Number two, Gore was reluctant to raise it because he was the vice-president under a president who had, to put it charitably, avoided any service at all. The third reason, which I think is something only another journalist will understand, is that when we wrote that story back in May 2000, all of the news organizations had already done their major Bush-bio pieces. It’s hard for reporters to acknowledge that they missed something. So there wasn’t the kind of inclination to pick it up."

Besides, as media and political sages have observed since Watergate, if not before, it’s not the original wrongdoing, it’s the cover-up. In the case of Bush and the National Guard, it’s not even clear there was wrongdoing. It may have been more a matter of the entitled scion of a prominent family taking advantage of opportunities that weren’t available to other young Texans. The problem is that Bush has never fessed up to that. (It should be noted, too, that CBS’s document-verification problems have nothing to do with what the Globe has reported — a distinction that unfortunately may be lost on the public.)

"The records that have surfaced in the last four years on Bush directly contradict some parts of his biography, which he highlights in his own autobiography," says Robinson. "For me it’s a question of, you do the research and you report the results. People can draw their own conclusions about it."

WE’VE SEEN IT before. A sleazy tabloid story bubbles up into the mainstream media. The conduit: Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, who, in the course of reporting on how news organizations are planning to handle a rank-smelling tale, winds up giving other journalists permission to talk about it. National Journal media critic William Powers, back when he was with the New Republic, once wrote an entire column on Kurtz’s role in advancing stories that were not quite yet ready to jump the species barrier (to borrow a phrase from Slate’s Jacob Weisberg).

Kurtz was at it again last week as the Kitty Kelley mini-furor grew. On September 8, he reported on how US media outlets were planning to handle the book. (Answer: very carefully.) The next day, Kurtz wrote that Sharon Bush, a former sister-in-law of the president, had denied being a source for Kelley’s claim that Bush had snorted coke at Camp David. In fact, the caution that many news organizations are showing with regard to The Family appears to be wise. This past Monday, Kelley was interviewed on the Today show, the first of three scheduled appearances this week. An unusually prosecutorial Matt Lauer got Kelley to admit that the Bush-and-cocaine story was based on just one confidential source, with Sharon Bush — at best — merely confirming that she’d heard the same story. "I never said she saw it, Matt, but she did confirm it over lunch," Kelley said. (Well, if she didn’t see it ...)

"I wrestle with this dilemma all the time," Kurtz told me last week. "How do you write about something that is going to make a splash in the media without serving as an echo chamber for allegations that you have not personally confirmed?" He added: "Once I learned that the Today show would be putting on Kitty Kelley for three straight mornings and that White House and Republican Party officials were willing to trash the book on the record, it was clear that this was going to be an important-enough event to write about. But I have tried to be very careful about not retailing or recycling allegations that I can’t vouch for, and for which I don’t know what kind of evidence Kelley has."

It’s hard to know whether any of this will make a difference. At the beginning of this week, it appeared that the poll numbers were tightening up once again, although Bush still appeared to have a five- or six-point lead. Electoral-Vote.com, a Web site that tracks the latest state-by-state polls, actually had Kerry slightly ahead in the Electoral College tally.

Hard-core Kerry supporters, angered over the swift-boat ads and their ties to forces friendly to Bush, may only be more determined than ever to defeat a president they see as an illegitimate warmonger. The attacks on Bush may redound to his benefit as well. His political guru, Karl Rove, has said that the key to Bush’s victory are the four million evangelical Christians who did not bother to vote four years ago. According to Steven Waldman, editor-in-chief of Belief.net, the more Bush comes under fire, the more evangelicals may rally to his side.

"In the evangelical Christian community, the more he’s attacked, the better off he is," says Waldman. "They already think he’s one of them, and now they also think he’s being persecuted, which fits their sense that Christians in general are being persecuted in America." And though the ideal scenario for Bush is to be seen as under attack for his faith, even his personal failings can be an asset, as long as they took place before he quit drinking and was born again. "They take it as a given, in fact as a positive, that he used to be a louse," Waldman says. "That’s part of what makes him so inspiring — the fact that he once was lost but now he’s saved." On the other hand, Waldman warns that if the Camp David cocaine story were somehow proved true, it could harm Bush, since Kelley claims it happened several years after Bush’s come-to-Jesus moment. Given the sourcing to which Kelley admitted on Monday, it would not appear that Bush has much to worry about.

Last Friday, ABC News’s online political dope sheet, "The Note," offered a rare instance of introspection. "As long as political reporters — rather than reporters who cover health care, economics, and military affairs — dominate election coverage," the Note-ster wrote, "there will always be more emphasis on narrative that implicitly celebrates tactical cleverness and bare-knuckles ruthlessness over narrative that celebrates ideas."

Tom Rosenstiel puts it another way. "Even if you assume the worst about each of these allegations, their relevance is arguably less important than the public record of each of these guys in the last two years." But, he adds, "You go out on more of a limb if you say we’re going to assess the presidency of George Bush than you do if you say, hey, here’s a guy who’s alleging something, we’re going to put it on the air."

So here we are in the midst of another presidential campaign, with the candidates and their allies attacking one another and the media reporting on everything other than what’s at stake for the next four years. After every election, everyone says it’s going to be different the next time. Then we do it all over again. It matters that the swift-boat charges against Kerry are false and that the National Guard charges against Bush are true, of course. But it matters even more that all of this is taking place against a backdrop of war, terrorism, economic woes, and the worst climate for civil liberties in a generation. Is this all we’ve got to talk about?

Never mind a new chapter. It’s time for someone to write a new book.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: September 17 - 23, 2004
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