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One Cheer for Peter Jennings

The coverage of the current Democratic primaries oozes with a quality of charity and brotherhood, with the kind of gentleness that is found among friends, or political allies. With a few robust exceptions (Howard Dean's attempt to channel Mr. T), the daily and nightly TV coverage has been mostly obsessed with the horse race at the expense of serious discussion of important political issues.

Someone might claim that the conservatives should be delighted with the lack of bias, all the neutrality in tone, as Dan Rather asks short, sweet campaign-pamphlet questions such as "What's the basic Wesley Clark message in this campaign?" But this is Standard Operating Procedure for the media during the Democratic primaries. When Republican primaries are ongoing, the media are positively obsessed with intolerant, hateful, "anti-choice" right-wingedness. Only when a GOP candidate campaigns against the conservative movement will he garner piles of positive press (See: McCain, John.).

To find real media scrutiny of the Democrats on the campaign trail, usually you have to flip over to cable news. In the last debate before New Hampshire voted, which aired live on Fox News Channel, ABC anchor Peter Jennings earned a star on his forehead for asking some firm questions. He calmly asked Al Sharpton to explain his philosophy on nominating governors to the Federal Reserve Board, and Sharpton collapsed like a ten-year-old kid whose dog allegedly ate the homework. He also asked General Wesley Clark about his endorsement by radical-left filmmaker Michael Moore, whose relation to the truth cannot be found on any genealogical chart.

Jennings asked Clark: Since Moore stood on a stage next to you, and declared that he can't wait for the debate between "the General and the deserter," why didn't you disassociate yourself from that characterization of President Bush? For emphasis, Jennings added that this is a "reckless charge not supported by the facts." Clark made a fool of himself in response, suggesting that Moore's typical truth-mangling is somehow independent of his candidacy, and had nothing do to with his campaign. Worse yet, when tough Tim Russert pressed him repeatedly the next Sunday on "Meet the Press" to condemn Moore's remarks, Clark continued to claim ignorance, that he'd "never looked into those" wild allegations.

Maybe it's time someone looked into these radicals and their wild allegations for a change. Left-wingers have tried to charge that since the Texas Air National Guard doesn't have records of Bush attending periodic drills in 1972 and 1973, that he was "AWOL." Their source, a May 2000 article by Boston Globe reporter Walter Robinson, also notes that Lieutenant Bush spent 36 days on duty in May, June, and July of 1973 "cramming" to put service days on the record. That's not a story of "desertion."

The hilarious thing about this charge coming from left field is, using the loose, hyperbolic Michael Moore definition, Bill Clinton is the one who really would qualify as a "deserter." He avoided the draft by signing up for the ROTC at the University of Arkansas, and then abandoned the unit to study at Oxford. Note that Michael Moore never made that allegation against Clinton.

It was great for Jennings to put this question to Clark, but there's one problem. It never aired on Peter's own newscast, "World News Tonight." ABC viewers could have seen the exchange on "Nightline," if they were staying up late. The next morning on ABC's "Good Morning America," reporter Claire Shipman skipped over the "reckless" talk, and even left out any label for radical Moore: "The General defended his Democratic credentials and refused to criticize comments by outspoken filmmaker Michael Moore, who, campaigning with Clark, called President Bush a deserter." Moore's no "radical." No" leftist." Not even a "liberal." He's just "outspoken."

Neither Jennings nor Russert noticed another problem: in 1999, Moore condemned Kosovo, the war his endorsee Clark led, as a "slaughter...We will all have to answer for this some day, and I would like to be able to say that I did not sit by silently while this was being done." Moore hasn't made Clark answer for the so-called "slaughter," and neither man has been challenged on the statement.

To be sure, Peter Jennings isn't being soft and neutral in his White House coverage these days. After New Hampshire, he was airing voters assailing Bush for putting "men over in Iraq dying for money and oil." Fairness and balance on the evening news means matching your softness or hardness. Either you're soft and neutral toward everyone, or you're hard and skeptical toward everyone. Here and there, we're seeing glimpses of that. But just glimpses.