What’s wrong with the coverage of the CBS scandal?
January 14, 2005 - Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By Russ Baker © 2005
After Monday’s bloodletting at CBS, Karl Rove and company must have broken out the champagne. Within the past six months, George Bush’s political strategists have scored the trifecta of adroit crisis management. An ostensibly independent yet clearly White House-allied organization, the Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth, destroyed Democratic nominee John Kerry’s most salient asset, his Vietnam service record, by raising unsubstantiated doubts about Kerry’s previously unquestioned heroism. They diverted attention from the mysteries of their own candidate’s wartime record. And they managed to take down the most journalistically active television news organization, thereby sending a chill through other news outfits that might have debated how aggressive to be in exploring the past of a man with one of the most opaque resumes in presidential history.
The hullabaloo over CBS News’s overzealous use of documents whose authenticity is in doubt -- and CBS management’s actions to punish those involved -- only serves to obscure a far bigger question: Where was George, who has gone on to promulgate a precedent-shattering, hugely risky doctrine of pre-emptive war, when his nation called on him to fulfill his own military obligations?
Like CBS’s staffers and journalists from many media outlets, I explored Bush’s National Guard service extensively during the election campaign. What I found were gaps upon puzzles upon misstatements upon nondisclosures.
Certain facts are clear: As a young man at Yale, George Bush vocally supported the Vietnam War and criticized others who failed to serve, then got himself into a safe unit for the sons of the privileged, in the Texas Air National Guard. We also know that, for reasons yet unclear, he failed to complete the final two years of a six-year military obligation to fly jets, for which taxpayers had spent a good part of a million dollars training him.
§ Bush claims that he left his unit prematurely in order to accept a high-level opportunity in campaign management in Alabama. But campaign colleagues described his work as grunt-level make-work, marked by a predilection to show up in the afternoon hours and to brag about carousing the night before. In addition, the widow of the Alabama campaign manager, who was a close friend of Bush’s father, told me that Bush was only in Alabama because the senior Bush had begged her husband to hire his son in order to get him out of some kind of trouble back in Texas.
§ According to the widow of the flyer brought in to replace Bush in the Texas Air Guard, his commanding officer, Jerry Killian(who died in 1984) had explained to her and her husband that Bush had left the unit abruptly because of problems flying his plane -- and Killian had suspected that alcohol abuse had something to do with it. (Bush has admitted to past alcohol problems but not offered specifics relating to his military service.) More than one of his flying comrades indicated that Bush’s behavior became suddenly erratic several years into his time with the Guard.
(The questioned CBS documents were memos purportedly generated by Killian; his own reputation is unblemished.)
§ Bush has said on repeated occasions that he continued to fulfill his military obligation while in Alabama, but high-profile efforts to substantiate that, including the offer of reward monies, have turned up no corroboration. And Bush’s former ghostwriter told me that Bush admitted to him in 1999 that he had done no service at all in Alabama, claiming to be “excused.”
One thing is certain about the CBS documents: If they are not real, then they were prepared by someone who had enough inside information to make them look almost real, but who also knew enough to include a few small telltale signs that might point to their inauthenticity – clues that might be overlooked by a news organization racing to put out an important, timely story under competitive pressures.
It’s striking that the critique of the documents appeared on the Internet just hours after CBS aired them, and that the person claiming to be a document expert turned out to be an attorney with strong GOP connections who had no such credentials. How was this man able so quickly to produce his critique, and how did the story grow so quickly to overtake the basic questions about the president’s own murky past performance? Did Rove’s well-documented history of aggressive last-minute campaign ploys have anything to do with this episode? And why, despite all the questions, has Bush never offered a detailed accounting of his doings in those missing years? That’s a news story no one yet has tackled.
Without excusing serious errors on CBS’s part, an even more important question remains: Why have we decided that the transgressions of a news organization -- that, at worst, overshot on a legitimate story – are more important than a thorough examination of the personal character of our Commander in Chief, presiding over a highly controversial war in Iraq and having no hesitation to expose others – including large numbers of Texas Guardsmen -- to mortal risk when he himself may have even failed to complete a safe military obligation of his own?
Independent investigative journalist Russ Baker covered Bush’s National Guard Service for The Nation. He is a Contributing Editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and founding Fellow of the new Fourth Estate Society.
An abbreviated version of this article appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.