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The Ten Worst Media Distortions of Campaign 2004

Pounding the Bush National Guard Story

The networks did their best to ignore or demean the Vietnam veterans who criticized John Kerry’s military service and post-Vietnam activities as an anti-war activist, but when Democratic partisans like Terry McAuliffe and Michael Moore in February challenged President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard, reporters quickly adopted the issue as their own and criticized as unsatisfactory every answer provided by the White House.

Reporters could not justify pursuing the Bush “AWOL” story by citing any actual proof of wrongdoing, any relevance to Bush’s role as President, any sign that his conduct in 1972-73 was especially uncommon, or any clamoring from voters to get to the bottom of the story. The only impetus was DNC boss Terry McAuliffe’s stated desire to contrast “John Kerry, a war hero with a chest full of medals” with “George Bush, a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard.”

The networks followed McAuliffe’s agenda. From February 1 through February 16, ABC, CBS and NBC aired 63 National Guard stories or interview segments on their morning and evening news programs. That’s far more coverage than Bill Clinton’s draft-dodging scandal received in 1992. Back then, the three evening newscasts offered 10 stories on Clinton’s complete evasion of service; this year, those same broadcasts pumped out 25 stories on whether Bush’s acknowledged service was fully documented.

TextBox3Despite the fact that no Democrat had substantiated their AWOL claims, the networks put the burden on Bush to prove his innocence. After the White House released documents on February 10 showing Bush had satisfied the Guard’s requirements and received an honorable discharge, reporters wanted more evidence (see box). The records showed Bush was never “AWOL,” exposing the baselessness of the Democrats’ original charge, yet none of the networks framed their stories around questionable Democratic tactics. Instead, they kept the onus on Bush: “The issue is not going to go away,” ABC’s Terry Moran promised. Other lowlights:

On February 12, the CBS Evening News promoted a conspiracy theory floated by disgruntled ex-National Guard officer Bill Burkett, who claimed he overheard a 1997 order to purge Bush’s records. The Boston Globe reported the next day that Burkett’s back-up, George Conn, totally disagreed with his friend’s version of what happened, but the Evening News never told viewers about that crucial detail. (Six months later, CBS would again rely on Burkett as a crucial source for an anti-Bush National Guard story, as Burkett later revealed himself as the provider of forged documents to CBS’s 60 Minutes.

Early on, John Kerry tried to egg on the media. “Was he present and active, on duty in Alabama, at the times he was supposed to be?” he challenged on February 8. “Just because you get an honorable discharge does not, in fact, answer that question.” Given Kerry’s defense of the draft-dodging Clinton twelve years ago (“We do not need now to divide America over who served and how”), unbiased reporters would have questioned the candidate for his hypocrisy in at least not repudiating the other Democratic “dividers,” but ABC, CBS and NBC concealed the Kerry flip-flop and kept him above the fray.

On February 12, Peter Jennings did not report the finding of ABC’s polling unit that two-thirds of the public, including 58 percent of Democrats, thought the Bush National Guard story was “not a legitimate issue.” Instead, Jennings highlighted how Bush’s “rating for honesty and trustworthiness is at a new low” — as if the networks’ biased promotion of unproved partisan charges had nothing to do with that.

Time magazine writer Joe Klein, a regular on CNN this political season, branded the “AWOL” story as “gutter politics,” but he was nevertheless pleased to see President Bush on the receiving end of unfair attacks.

Gutter politics goes both ways. And I think that in this case, what we’re talking about is a legitimate issue of character which is peripheral to the campaign, not nearly as important as issues of war and solvency, but it’s an issue,” he justified on CNN’s Paula Zahn Now on February 11. “It’s kind of fun to watch Republicans respond to the kind of politics that they’ve been practicing for the last 20 years, especially the Bush family in 1988 and in 2000.”