Fabricated Controversy

Accounts of President George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard re-entered the news cycle this week after Terry McAuliffe, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, repeated “AWOL” charges the past weekend.

Today, The Washington Post took its own shot at laying out the facts for their readers. However, nailing down all the facts has proved difficult. As the weblog Daily Howler pointed out, even The New York Times failed to get its story straight in two separate articles.

There are two distinct media timelines involved in this controversy. One timeline can easily be traced back to Walter Robinson’s May 2000 Boston Globe article which originally exposed the gaps in President Bush’s National Guard service record. The above-mentioned Washington Post story is part of this timeline, which continually questions whether Bush fulfilled his National Guard duties.

The other timeline began with Michael Moore’s January 17 speech endorsing Gen. Wes Clark, in which Moore called for a debate between, “The General and the Deserter.” Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift incorrectly wrote yesterday, “Retired general Wesley Clark was widely criticized for not objecting when Moore called Bush a ‘deserter’ in his presence.” Actually, media comment on that issue picked up only after Peter Jennings confronted Clark during the January 22 Democratic debate that proceeded the New Hampshire primary. Even so, it’s questionable whether Clark was actually criticized at all — and even then, most comments were neutral, not critical.

A search of the Nexis database using the keywords “Bush,” “Moore,” “Clark,” and “deserter” revealed 204 hits between January 16, 2004 and February 3, 2004. Only 22 of the 204 hits were dated before Peter Jennings challenged Clark. Nor was there a single editorial or op-ed column questioning Clark’s responsibility to refute Moore’s comment, within those 22 hits prior to the January 22 debate.

(However, a Google search reveals that on January 15 prior to Moore’s speech, Jay Nordlinger, the managing editor of the conservative National Review, wrote, “And would a candidate of conscience actually accept an endorsement from Moore, a hateful loon? Clark should be confronted — by some independent-minded journalist — with the claims this man has made. He should then be asked, ‘Is this the kind of support you’d like?’”)

(At first glance this appears to be the type of criticism identified by Clift. But, four days later on January 19, after Moore’s endorsement speech, Nordlinger amended his previous comments. “Several of my readers said, ‘Come on, Jay, a guy can’t be responsible for the people who endorse him’ — which is, of course, true.”)

A Nexis search of the same keywords confined between January 22 and February 3, 2004 produces 182 hits. Thus, Peter Jennings nationally televised challenge to Clark resulted in an approximately 825% increase in media exposure.

Jenning’s influence is widespread, as demonstrated by the waterfall of articles that followed after he weighed into the Bush’s deserter debate. However, his voice did not generate “widespread” criticism of Clark, as Clift asserted. Clark was challenged, but rarely criticized.

In fact, the great influx of stories that followed the January 22 debate reported on the recent events and then dug back into the files that Robinson originally scoured over to produce his May 2000 report.

The majority of the media have let the Clark storyline die. Instead most media have turned to the first, and the most important storyline, attempting — so far without success — to sort out the facts of Bush’s National Guard service for readers.

Thomas Lang

Note: The above post has been changed to reflect Terry McAuliffe’s correct title since it was first published.

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.