Sins of Omissions

The conventional wisdom in print journalism is that young people don’t read the news. The coverage of President Bush’s defense of his National Guard service suggests they have their reasons.

When Tim Russert questioned Bush a week ago Sunday about claims he had gone AWOL from the Guard, the president tried to reframe the debate: “I would not,” he warned, “denigrate service to the Guard.”

That was a straw man, of course — the president was being asked about skipping his service, not about the type of service he chose. (Neither Russert nor Democratic front-runner Sen. John Kerry had “denigrated” National Guard service.)

So why was Bush so apparently thin-skinned about the Guard? To explain that required a brief history lesson — but unfortunately, few in the media framed it that way the next day.

What was at issue was the difference between the Guard today and the draft-era Guard in which the president served. “Joining the guard was seen by many as a way to get out of going to Vietnam,” says University of Wisconsin history professor and Hoover Institute fellow Jeremi Suri. “It wasn’t necessarily a cushy job — it was Guardsmen who fired on the students at Kent State. But there was a combined sense of luck and privilege associated with the Guard, and also some disdain. If you had the right connections, you wouldn’t have a problem getting in. But if you were the son of a mechanic, you really had very little chance.”

Here’s what Colin Powell said in his 1995 autobiography, “My American Journey”:

I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well-placed and so many professional athletes (who were probably healthier than any of us) managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units. Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to our country.

Information about the nature of draft-era Guard service did finally make it into a few editorials this past week, and a couple long think pieces over the weekend — in one, The New York Times notes that Bush’s fighter group was known as the “Champagne Unit” — but it was conspicuously absent from the initial coverage of the interview. (See The San Francisco Chronicle and Baltimore Sun, where Bush’s quote is printed without significant context. The Boston Herald deserves credit for getting it right in a Feb. 9 story, quoting Kerry on the difference between the Guard of today and 30 years ago.)

By ghettoizing the necessary context to understand the president’s reference on the back pages (or worse yet, a week late in their weekend sections), the papers did a disservice to young readers desperately in need of a history lesson.

It’s not always apparent to a 25-year-old why it matters who did what 30 years ago. But since that seems to be an issue that’s likely to stick around in this campaign, the more context that the press can supply, the better.

And preferably the day after, not someday down the road.

—Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.