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Still AWOL, Part 4: The Lazy Way Out

The ConWeb has never done its own investigation of the Bush-National Guard issue, content to cherry-pick only the accounts that make Bush look good.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 2/12/2004

The various components of ConWeb have spent a lot of time insisting that they are news organizations. That implies that they send their reporters out to cover stuff.

Yet, in the case of the mystery of George W. Bush's National Guard service, there's a distinct lack of curiosity to find the truth. What matters, it appears, is making Bush look as good as possible by cherry-picking the evidence others have reported -- or simply ignoring it completely.

WorldNetDaily, for instance, which claims to be a "general interest news service," has run absolutely no news stories under a WND byline on the subject. (We're not counting token syndicated liberal Bill Press' column.) The closest any actual WND has come thus far to approaching the subject is Joseph Farah his own bad self, and that was to pledge neutrality and wash his hands of the whole affair.

In the middle of a Feb. 10 John Kerry-bashing rant, he stops to inform us: "Once again, at this point, it is important for me to point out that I do not support Bush. I am not excusing anything he did or didn't do in military service. I am discussing his opponent ..."

That, in a nutshell, is the ConWeb approach to the issue: diversion. WND -- along with NewsMax and -- is much more interested in attacking Democrats than do anything that could be seen as criticizing a Republican in general and Bush in particular (except when he's not acting conservative enough).

So, instead of any genuinely serious look at the Bush-National Guard issue, WND offers Kerry-bashing. On Feb. 10 alone, in addition to Farah's column, WND serves up a group of veterans (featuring the chief diversionary tactic du jour -- an ancient photo of Kerry kinda sorta in the proximity of Jane Fonda) and a group of Catholics who don't like the guy. Of course, neither story permits the Kerry campaign to offer a rebuttal of their criticism. WND thus far has run more original stories about Kerry's alleged botox use than about Bush's Guard service.

Over at NewsMax, they're even bigger Kerry-bashers than WND, desperate to hang "Hanoi Jane" around Kerry's neck and blame him for the U.S. losing in Vietnam. All of which, of course, is overwhelming what little coverage it has done on the Bush matter (which is actually the most coverage done anywhere on the ConWeb).

Said coverage, of course, has been slanted and unreliable, cherry-picking the accounts of more credible news organizations and misinterpreting them in favor of Bush. A Feb. 6 story insists that William Turnipseed, a former commander of the Alabama National Guard unit where Bush was supposed to have trained "recanted" his testimony that he never saw Bush there. In reality, all he did was move from a definitive "I never saw him there" to "I don't know if I saw him there" -- hardly a recantation.

On the other hand, NewsMax has run the occasional Associated Press account, such as a Feb. 10 story on the release of Bush's Guard payroll records. In an accompanying story, an AP timeline of Bush's military service, NewsMax does something strange. The headline link from the front page reads, "Bush Had Permission to Be In Alabama," and the entry in which Bush's Alabama service is approved has the word "approved" in bold letters. The issue was never whether he had approval to serve in Alabama; it's whether he attended drills when he was there.

A Feb. 8 NewsMax story goes even further, insisting that Turnipseed's latest statement is "exculpatory." No, it's not -- nothing Turnipseed said proves Bush showed up for Guard drills in Alabama. The article, whose main purpose is to beat up on NBC's Tim Russert for daring to even question Bush about it during an interview, insisting that Russert "decided to carry the DNC's water by raising questions that had long ago been answered." Which isn't true, either, the evidence is that the questions are still being asked. The article also injects some Kerry-bashing, again trying to make an false issue out of Senate testimony he gave in 1971 about alleged atrocities committed by American soldiers in Vietnam. Kerry "later admitted he hadn't personally witnessed any of the atrocities he claimed his fellow soldiers had committed," writes "Carl Limbacher and Staff." He never claimed that in the first place; he merely cited what other soldiers claimed to have done.

The most interesting, yet typical, case on ConWeb work on the issue comes from the Media Research Center. The sole story its unit has run about it, on Feb. 4, took the spin that while "Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, Tuesday 'defended' President Bush's choice to serve in the National Guard -- but then, in the same breath, Kerry appeared to equate National Guard service with draft-dodging." The story makes no real attempt to examine Bush's record. This resulted in a host of letters to the editor from people who bought into the spin and criticized Kerry for allegedly denigrating service in the National Guard. CNS readers, of course, have never been told anything close to the full truth.

Down the hall at the Media Research Center -- where they don't have to keep up the pretense of appearing fair -- they actually briefly inched toward a serious look at the issue. In a Feb. 4 CyberAlert, Brent Baker pointed out that TV news reports prompted by Michael Moore's charge that Bush was a "deserter" concluded that Bush's erratic service record did not meet the legal definition of being a deserter or being AWOL.

"The stories do not paint a flattering picture of Bush’s commitment to the Guard after four years of service," Baker writes -- probably the most honest thing written on the ConWeb about it. Unfortunately, the honesty stops there and he slips into the mantra that defines the MRC's attitude toward the issue: " ... but they also show how he fulfilled his commitment about a year later and was honorably discharged -- and the stories make clear that the terms “AWOL” or “deserter” to not belong in any sentence with George W. Bush."

Baker goes on in the Feb. 5 CyberAlert to insist that charges of AWOL are "unsubstantiated" and to push (with help from the Wall Street Journal's editorial page) a diversionary tactic, a 1992 speech Kerry made to, as Baker puts it, "denounce those critical of Bill Clinton’s efforts to avoid military service during the Vietnam era."

Ah, Bill Clinton. It wouldn't be the ConWeb if a Clinton couldn't be dragged into an issue. Brent Bozell writes in a Jan. 29 column that "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."

And then there's this, from a Feb. 4 "Media Reality Check" on the issue: "Can you imagine the national press agreeing in 1996 that the Republicans were showing spirited 'determination' if they had made an issue out of Bill Clinton’s record of draft evasion?" Well, reporting on Clinton's "draft evasion" record in 1996 would have been moot because all questions about it were sufficiently answered in 1992; that did not happen regarding Bush's Guard record in 2000.

In that "Reality Check," Tim Graham goes on to call the AWOL charges "inaccurate" and "unproven anti-Bush smears." Well, if we're going to be all technical about this, isn't any reference to Clinton as a "draft dodger" inaccurate since he does not meet the traditional definition of the word -- receiving an official draft notice and then fleeing the country to avoid service? Yet the MRC has a habit of putting "Clinton" and "draft dodger" together and ridiculing anyone who says different.

A 1992 "Notable Quotables" piece -- quotes cherry-picked (hmmm ... there seems to be a theme here) to show how liberal the media is -- features a Time magazine editor as a runner-up for the year's "Clinton Camelot Award" for saying that "The word "'draft dodging' does not belong in any sentence with Bill Clinton's name in it." A 1996 'Notable Quotables" features a quote that Clinton "was being smeared as an adulterer and a draft dodger on the eve of the critical New Hampshire primary" with the headline "Is It a 'Smear' Even If It's True?" A 1999 Bozell column refers to "that draft-dodging non-inhaler, Bill Clinton."

And in a May 2003 CyberAlert on reaction to Bush's aircraft carrier fly-in, Baker writes in response to a commentator who said the words "draft-dodger" were always brought up every time Clinton took part in a military-related event as president: "'Draft-dodger' was 'always brought up'? Sometimes maybe. And he was a draft-dodger who made derogatory comments about the military while President Bush never trashed the military and found a legal way to avoid going to Vietnam by serving in the Air National Guard."

By Feb. 11, though, the MRC was insisting in that day's CyberAlert that the Guard pay records Bush released "disproved the unsubstantiated allegation ... that President George W. Bush was AWOL from his Air National Guard duties for a year in 1972-73" and wanted everyone to just drop it. The media, wrote Baker, "moved the goal posts on the subject as they assumed Bush is guilty until the White House proves him innocent by accounting for his activities for every week 30-plus years ago." The only reason this is an issue at all, he insists, is that darn liberal media (though he doesn't actually use the word "liberal"), "which are stoking it by treating it as such a credible issue worthy of such air time." Baker concludes by adding on to a reporters comment that the story isn't over: "Indeed not given the media’s interest in stirring up a now settled issue."

The other CyberAlert item that day reports on the Feb. 10 White House press briefing, which Baker writes "was quite contentious, with the press corps pounding away at Press Secretary Scott McClellan for nearly 30 straight minutes over their dissatisfaction with the 1972-'73 pay records." Baker's reaction: "If I were McClellan, about five minutes in I would have insisted that the reporters move on to another subject and, if they didn’t and pressed away at their petty pickiness, just walked out instead of accommodating the puerile whining."

And in a Feb. 12 CyberAlert, in respose to a reporter who said the issue needs to be looked at in a "fair and accurate way," Baker retorts, "But wouldn’t “fair and accurate” coverage mean ceasing to push a baseless storyline which advances the agenda of partisan activists? In other words, just dropping the story?" That's easy for Baker to say since his organization has never covered it in any real depth in the first place.

The MRC's Graham tops that in a Feb. 11 "Media Reality Check" the headline of which claims the TV networks "Protected Draft-Dodging Clinton." Graham joins Baker in insisting that the questions about Bush's Guard record have been sufficiently answered (never mind the gaps in the summer of 1972 and the spring of 1973). He attempts to prove that since the TV networks have given more attention to Bush than to Clinton's attempts to keep from serving in the military, "they look like partisan tools, not objective observers."

This from an employee of an organization that wouldn't know objectivity if it sat at the "platinum" table ($25,000 donation) at its "Annual Star-Studded Gala" -- and whose alleged "news" division can't be bothered to do its own investigation of the Bush allegations because it is much more content to smear Democrats instead.

The reaction to the Bush-Guard story is a microcosm of what the conservative media is all about. They don't care about facts; they care about politics.

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