A Textbook Example of Conservative Journalism
CNSNews.com follows the blueprint by raising dubious allegations from the dead and disgruntled that Rep. Jack Murtha didn't earn his Vietnam War medals.
By Terry Krepel
Call it conservative journalism at its finest.
On Jan. 13, CNSNews.com published a two-pronged attack on Rep. John Murtha, who has gained recent attention by criticizing the Iraq war and calling for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq -- a stance that has made him reviled by conservatives.
The lead attack piece was a article by Marc Morano and Randy Hall suggesting that Murtha did not earn the two Purple Hearts he received during his Vietnam War service. Of the four main sources quoted in the article, one is dead (former Rep. John Saylor), a second is incapacitated and contributed no fresh quotes to the article (Harry M. Fox), and two (Don Bailey, who is CNS' main source on this article, and William Choby) have apparent axes to grind, having lost elections to Murtha (Fox also lost an election to Murtha).
Wait -- wasn't this kind of sourcing forwarded by conservatives to attack the veracity of the CBS memos on President Bush's National Guard service? Yup. A September 20, 2004, CNS article quotes its leader, Media Research Center president Brent Bozell, describing the CBS report this way: "Their sources were dubious at best - so much so that their primary source was never cited publicly - and they were certainly partisan with a political agenda against the President." Sounds a lot like Bill Burkett -- provider of the questionable memos to CBS, whom CNS accused of having a "grudge" against Bush and whom a CNS columnist called "unstable" -- and Don Bailey have something in common.
The story is almost all accusation; of the article's 52 paragraphs, only five are devoted to letting Murtha defend himself, and two of them are pulled from a 1994 newspaper article.
CNS joined this article with another by Morano and Hall recounting Murtha's relatively minor role in the Abscam bribery scandal of the late 1970s -- he was named an unindicted co-conspirator and testified against other colleagues in the House. Bailey, who lost a Democratic runoff to Murtha in 1982, is again quoted in this article, this time suggesting that Murtha lied about his Abscam role. This article, like the other one, is mostly accusation; CNS limited Murtha's defense to the three paragraphs he issued reacting to the other CNS article.
As even CNS itself admits, its attack on Murtha's war record is reminiscent of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on presidential candidate John Kerry's Vietnam record. As ConWebWatch has documented, CNS was a early promoter of the Swift Boat Veterans' allegations -- and also ignored or downplayed inconsistencies in their stories.
The defense of these Murtha-bashing articles by CNS and its parent, the Media Research Center, has been alternately petty and snide. In a Jan. 14 NewsBusters post expressing pleasure that the Washington Post repeated the CNS article on Murtha's war record, the MRC's Tim Graham still managed to find something to complain about: the Post's noting of the fact that CNS "averages 110,000 readers, mainly conservative, and provides material for other Web sites such as GOPUSA" (whose now-defunct sister site, Talon News, was the home of Jeff Gannon; interestingly, as ConWebWatch has noted, CNS editor in chief David Thibault ran as far as he could from Gannon, declaring that he was "no conservative"). Wrote Graham: "Would Kurtz say the Post 'averages a million readers, mainly liberals'?"
The problem with that analogy is that Graham has no evidence, other than the presumption of liberal media bias that fuels the entire MRC organization, that the Post's readership is "mainly liberals." But since CNS self-identifies as conservative by being a division of a conservative organization, it was necessary for the Post to note this in the article since the name "Cybercast News Service" offers no hint to the site's leanings.
That was the petty part. The snide part comes from Thibault in a Jan. 16 commentary. He complained that CNS, Morano and Hall are "being pounded so viciously on your liberal blogs," characterizing these as "the Left's paranoid rants." Thibault then praised his "tiny news organization" for "uncovering elements that Murtha, his Democratic colleagues in Congress, their cronies on the political Left and the establishment media wanted buried. Oops." He offered no evidence that Democratic "cronies" and the "establishment media" wanted this story "buried"; maybe they just recognized that CNS' sources are dead, incapacitated or disgruntled.
Thibault also insisted that "I've never met, spoken on the telephone or exchanged emails with [White House senior adviser] Karl Rove." But it's quite interesting that CNS' Murtha articles came just a day after a report surfaced of a Bush administration effort to urged U.S. military leaders to denounce Murtha.
Finally, Thibault pretends that CNS isn't conservative:
As for the oft-repeated criticism of CNSNews.com, that we are merely a forum for the Bush White House and wealthy Republican donors, consider these headlines of stories that we have also published.
That's right -- of the dozens of original news articles that CNS produced between August and January, Thibault could apparently come up with only three that appear to be non-conservative-friendly. Most people would call that window-dressing -- token articles to provide the illusion that CNS isn't monolithically conservative. And ConWebBlog has noted that the Jan. 9 article he cites contains the misleading statement, regurgitated from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, that Senate Democrats took money from "Jack Abramoff, his associates, and Indian tribe clients." In fact, while Abramoff may have directed money through "associates and Indian tribe clients" to Democrats, all money donated under Abramoff's name went to Republicans; none went to Democrats.
A more accurate way to assess CNS' conservatism than Thibault's cherry-picked articles is to look at how it treated Murtha's original Nov. 17 statement on withdrawing from Iraq. Its first original article on Murtha's statement came Nov. 18, in an article by Susan Jones headlined "Republicans Question Timing of Dems' Call for 'Surrender,'" which led not with Murtha's position but with statements from Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman criticizing Murtha. Three days later, on Nov. 21, Jones again featured a Republican response to Murtha, this time from Vice President Dick Cheney.
That same day, CNS ran a column by Rich Galen making the following claim:
There was outrage on the floor of the House over the whole thing [the House of Representatives vote to immediately withdraw troops from Iraq] which was, again, characterized as calling Mr. Murtha a coward which I do not believe any Member of Congress did.
In fact, Republican Ohio Rep. Jean Schmidt made the following statement during debate over what Republicans claimed was an approximation of Murtha's withdrawal plan (it called for immediate withdrawal, while Murtha's didn't):
A few minutes ago, I received a call from Colonel Danny Bubp, Ohio representative from the 88th District in the House of Representatives. He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: that cowards cut and run, Marines never do.
That sure sounds a heck of a lot like a member of Congress was calling Murtha a coward.
And if CNS is the bipartisan news organization that Thibault claims it is, you should be able to find plenty of coverage there about juicy scandals involving Republicans, right?
Uh, no. Take, for example, the case of Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the Republican congressman who resigned in disgrace after admitting to taking millions of dollars in bribes. CNS has written exactly zero original news articles on Cunningham's corruption. It did, however, find the time to tout Cunningham's support of issues near and dear to conservatives, such as an anti-flag-burning amendment and an effort to preserve a large cross on public land.
And the first mention of scandal-plagued, Republican-tied lobbyist Jack Abamoff on CNS is an April 2005 article painting Democrats as the "'get DeLay' crowd" for linking former House majority leader Tom DeLay in a roundabout way to Abramoff.
Bozell himself touted CNS' work in a Jan. 17 column, and he gets as snide as Thibault, claiming that "the media" has "thrown around the words 'war hero' [for Murtha] like clowns throwing candy at a parade." But even as he proudly proclaimed that "it fell to the Cybercast News Service ... to look into the Murtha military record," he attacked the "so-called nonpartisan, objective, 'mainstream' media" for daring to look into the background of John O'Neill and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. But as noted above, CNS had no interest in doing that. Bozell, meanwhile, was so consumed with promoting their claims that he attacked anyone who did tell the truth about them, as ConWebWatch also noted.
What CNS has done in its Murtha hit job is a prime example of conservative journalism at work. It differs from regular journalism in one crucial aspect: Being conservative comes before being journalists. Where regular journalism is ideally concerned with presenting the facts without fear or favor -- and despite the MRC's continual carping about journalists being notoriously liberal, the vast majority of them strive for that ideal -- conservative journalism is concerned first and foremost with advancing the cause of conservatism. Facts are a little more malleable than in regular journalism; they can be distorted or hidden to make whatever point needs to be made -- making conservatives look good and/or making liberals (like Murtha) look bad. And in the conservative journalism model, working for a political party or partisan group is no hindrance to making a career as a journalist; and their CNS bios indicate, Thibault worked for the Republican National Committee before joining CNS, while Morano worked for Rush Limbaugh's mid-90s TV show.
Thibault admitted as much in the Washington Post article -- that Murtha became a conservative target because of his statements critical of the war. He didn't specifically say that, of course; he put it much nicer by saying that the Purple Heart issue is relevant "because the congressman has really put himself in the forefront of the antiwar movement. .. He has been placed by the Democratic Party and antiwar activists as a spokesman against the war above reproach." So, apparently, it's Murtha's fault that CNS is rooting around into his past and channeling dead people to smear him.
This is not a story CNS would cover if Murtha was a Republican; it would be the same kind of non-story as the Duke Cunningham scandal. In putting only the most negative information about Murtha up front, CNS has followed the conservative journalism template to a T. It should stop pretending otherwise.