A few readers have asked why Campaign Desk hasn’t weighed in on the furor over the disputed CBS documents purporting to show President Bush slacking from his National Guard duties 32 years ago. (Indeed, the Weekly Standard Online today declared the CBS flap “the biggest media story in recent memory” — having apparently expunged from its memory both the Jayson Blair affair and the press’s failure to examine the pre-war rationale for the invasion of Iraq.)

The short answer to the question is, we’re not in the business of saying, “You may be a bad boy; drink your medicine.” We’re in the business of saying “You are a bad boy; drink your medicine.” And, as of this moment, despite the flurry of charges and counter-charges, it’s not clear whether CBS has been had by some undercover operative intent on smearing the president, or whether the network itself is the victim of a smear campaign.

We would note, though, that at the end of an exhaustive Washington Post piece this morning that found “dozens of inconsistencies” in typography, style and date between the CBS documents and authenticated documents on Bush’s National Guard service, a CBS spokeswoman, Sandy Genelius, began, for the first time, rowing the boat haltingly backward.

Said Genelius: “In the end, the gist is that it’s inconclusive. People are coming down on both sides, which is to be expected when you’re dealing with copies of documents.”

That’s not an acknowledgement of culpability — but it’s also not quite the same as Dan Rather’s assertion last Friday that “CBS News stands by, and I stand by, the thoroughness and accuracy of this report, period. Our story is true.”

In the meantime, we do know this: The whole furor has once again turned the campaign press away from the issues that will define daily life for the next four years, and sent it hurtling back to the dark and bloody days of 1972.

At this rate, we expect that next damning reports from each candidate’s kindergarten teacher will emerge, dressed as an exclusive, and presented as a purported campaign issue.

Steve Lovelady

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.