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Caveat lector

BASIC FACTS AWOL! A string of news orgs are dumping key facts, trying to help or hurt Bush:


BASIC FACTS AWOL: Phew! Thank goodness! That was a close one! Sighs of relief emerged from newsrooms as the “Bush AWOL” story dropped from the radar. (No reference to the topic in today’s Post or Times.) Are news orgs scared by this dangerous story? We’re not sure, but their performance this week has broken records for sheer ineptitude—and for politicization. The facts in this case are fairly simple. But news orgs have created major confusion by the inept way they’ve handled the case.

How simple are the facts in this case? Let’s review. There is little evidence that Bush served from May 1972 through May 1973—unless you accept that “torn document.” (The New York Times does. So does ABC.) From May through November 1972, Bush was living in Alabama. But two superiors have said that he didn’t show up for duty in the Alabama Guard. After that, Bush returned to Houston. But on May 2, 1973, Bush’s superiors at Ellington air base declined to fill out his annual evaluation, saying he’d been absent the previous year. But according to the 2000 Bush campaign, that mysterious “torn document” supports the claim that Bush served regularly starting in November 1972. If you accept the crucial torn document, Bush’s problem is fairly minor. But if the torn document isn’t OK, Bush likely missed a whole year.

In short, this case turns on that famous “torn document.” But incredibly, we haven’t seen a single news org refer to the document all week! Some news orgs have disregarded its validity, thereby saying that Bush missed a year. Others have accepted the document (without describing its shortcomings), thereby telling a less damaging story. But no one has actually described the torn document, or explained why they accept or reject it. Result? Contradictory accounts of the facts float around. And the public isn’t told why this is.

Meanwhile, partisans (called “news orgs”) tell the story they like. Some try to help Bush—and some try to hurt him. Just to establish the record, let’s look at four key examples.

Lois Romano on Hardball: On Tuesday night, the Washington Post’s Lois Romano appeared on the action adventure show, Hardball. The day before, she summarized the facts of the case in the Post. Here’s how she limned it for Chris:

MATTHEWS: How could a person be not accounted for from May to May, from one year to the next? How could it be there’s no records that could clearly specify the way in which the president did or did not fulfill his duties?

ROMANO: Well, Chris, that’s the really $60 million question. Today, I must have gotten about 15 calls from veterans who said, where are the records? I mean, if anybody is in the National Guard or in the military, there’s got to be a record. But we couldn’t find the records. The media couldn’t find the records. And the White House has failed to produce it. I think, at this point, the White House would love to have some record that he showed up for drills in Alabama.

Basically, what happened is that he asked for a transfer to work on a Senate campaign in 1972. He received the transfer, went to Alabama, and the trail goes cold. He’s supposed to report for drills, and there’s no record anywhere that he did. He says he did. He says he has a recollection that he did. And they’ve produced friends of his that work on the campaign—worked on that campaign back then that said, oh, yes, he told us he was going.

Then he comes back to Houston in November. And there’s still no sign of him, until the following May, when he starts going again to get his points.

“We couldn’t find the records,” Romano said. “And the White House has failed to produce it.” “There’s no record anywhere,” she said. But in the spring of 2000, the Bush campaign did produce a record—the famous “torn document.” Indeed, George Lardner described the famous document in Romano’s own Post on 11/3/00. Clearly, the Washington Post has now decided to disregard the crucial document. But Romano won’t even say that the document exists, and fails to say why the Post disregards it. In so doing, she helps create mammoth confusion and shows basic unfairness to the Bush camp. And one more thing: Romano avoids the possibility that the Bush campaign produced a bogus military document. “The White House has failed to produce a record?” In fact, the Bush camp did produce a record. The Post just won’t say what it was.

Scott Lindlaw of the Associated Press: For a ludicrous, Bush-friendly account of the facts, let’s visit the hapless AP. On February 3, Scott Lindlaw filed the AP’s latest in-kind donation to the Bush campaign. Amazingly, this is the AP’s official account of the facts:

LINDLAW: Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard in 1968 and spent most of his service time based near Houston. In May 1972 he requested and received a three-month assignment with the Alabama National Guard so he could serve as political director on the Senate campaign of Winton “Red” Blount, a family friend.

Retired Gen. William Turnipseed, a commander at the base Bush was assigned to, has said he never saw Bush appear for duty. Bush, however, says he remembers meeting Turnipseed and performing drills at the base.

In 2000, The Associated Press reviewed nearly 200 pages of Bush’s military records released by the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va. They contained no evidence that Bush reported for drills in Alabama.

Ari Fleischer, then a Bush campaign spokesman, quoted Bush as saying he did “paper shuffling” in Montgomery. “He thinks it was desk work,” Fleischer said.

Bush later left the Guard early to attend Harvard Business School.

This delusional account was sent to papers all over the country. To read it, one would think that only a three-month period is in question (presumably, May through July 1972). The AP has filed similar, deluded, Bush-friendly accounts of this matter for the past four years (for example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/20/04). Liberal bias, anyone?

Terry Moran, ABC News: On February 3, Terry Moran reported the facts for Peter Jennings. Earlier, Jennings had a small cow over claims that Bush failed to serve. Deftly, Terry stayed on Peter’s good side with this Bush-friendly rendition:

MORAN: After more than 30 years, the facts of the president’s military service are murky and in dispute…In May 1972, Lieutenant Bush asked for and received permission to be transferred to a reserve unit in Alabama, to work on a Republican Senate campaign. There is no official record Mr. Bush ever showed up for duty in Alabama. And the commander of the unit, General William Turnipseed, told reporters during the 2000 campaign he had no recollection of ever seeing him. Today, Turnipseed told ABC News, “I don’t know if he showed up in Alabama or not. He could have, I just don’t know.” On the campaign trail in 2000, Mr. Bush dismissed the charges.

BUSH (on tape): I fulfilled my duty. I got honorably discharged. I was a proud member of the Texas Air National Guard with an honorable discharge.

MORAN: Mr. Bush’s honorable discharge came in October 1973, after records established that he did show up for duty in the Guard, 19 times between November ’72 and June ’73. And, Peter, two of his fellow workers on that 1972 campaign recall him leaving on weekends to do his Guard duty.

Please note: When he says that Bush “show[ed] up for duty 19 times between November ’72 and June ’73,” Moran is accepting the validity of the torn document. But he doesn’t explain how shaky the document is, and he doesn’t say why he has decided to credit it. Meanwhile, Moran’s report is notable for one reason; he quotes General Turnipseed changing his story. During Campaign 2000, Turnipseed repeatedly insisted that Bush hadn’t served in Alabama, saying he was “99 percent” sure.

But there are major problems with Moran’s account. For one thing, Turnipseed’s second in command, Captain Kenneth Lott, also told newspapers in 2000 that Bush didn’t appear in Alabama. Moran omits that evidence. And he fails to note that Bush’s Houston superiors said, in real time, that Bush failed to show up there too. Their report contradicts the helpful “torn document”—so Moran omits their report from the record. Nor does Moran mention the fact that Bush was suspended from flight duty in 1972 for failing to take his annual physical. In short, Moran gives an absurdly one-sided, Bush-friendly account. Liberal bias, anyone?

Walter Robinson, Boston Globe: In today’s Globe, Walter Robinson’s revisits this issue on which he reported during Campaign 2000. Robinson presents a damaging summary of the evidence—a summary suggesting that Bush missed a year. But Robinson, like Romano, simply omits the Bush camp’s claims about the “torn document.” In his original report on 5/31/00, Robinson described the torn document and its shortcomings (text below). But today, the torn document has been disappeared. Today’s Globe reader has no way of knowing that the torn document even exists.

Summary—What’s a citizen to do: Did Bush skip a year in the National Guard? What are the actual facts of the case? Confusion reigns, due to the press corps’ increasingly politicized recitations. Some scribes, like ABC’s Moran, omit the facts that are harmful to Bush. Others simply deep-six the “torn document,” producing a summary that cuts against Bush. Their readers aren’t even told that the document exists. Result? Contradictory accounts of the facts—and massive confusion for the public.

Meanwhile, partisans link to the stories they like. On Tuesday, Eric Alterman said that ABC was “lying for Bush” and summarized Robinson—thereby offering an account of the facts which strongly cut against Bush. Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan—saying there’s “not much there”—linked to an absurdly Bush-friendly account produced by Brooks Jackson at, a brand-new Annenberg operation. How absurd is Jackson’s account? He lavishes time on those two Bush friends—friends who recall Bush saying he was pulling Guard duty. But incredibly, other evidence sleeps with the fishes. Incredibly, Jackson doesn’t mention the May 1973 report in which Bush’s superiors at Ellington air base said he’d been absent for the whole year. It’s simply astounding that this report was produced by a man who was, until recently, CNN’s ballyhooed fact-checking star. Annenberg should be embarrassed to have this laughable report on its site.

What are the actual facts of the case? Politicized, bowdlerized accounts now reign. If you want to harm Bush, you dump the torn document. If you want to help him, you dump the Houston report. The Post and the Globe reject the torn document—but don’t so much as explain its existence. ABC accepts the torn document, but doesn’t explain how shaky it is. Meanwhile, no one seems to have the courage to examine that puzzling document itself. If it’s valid, it seems to mean that Bush served. And it it’s fake—well, don’t even ask. Your “reporters” are too scared to go there.

THE WAY WE WERE: Today, almost all accounts of the facts are slickly edited—some to help Bush, some to hurt him. Back in Campaign 2000, by contrast, writers like Robinson let readers see the contradictions in the evidence. Here’s how he described the torn document then. He notes that, if the torn doc is valid, it contradicts the Houston report which said that Bush had been absent:

ROBINSON (5/23/00): During his search, Lloyd said, the only other paperwork he discovered was a single torn page bearing Bush’s social security number and numbers awarding some points for Guard duty. But the partial page is undated. If it represents the year in question, it leaves unexplained why Bush’s two superior officers would have declared him absent for the full year.
“If it represents the year in question.” Back then, Robinson acknowledged that the evidence was contradictory and unclear. Today, Globe readers aren’t even told that the torn doc exists—and aren’t told why the Globe has deep-sixed it.

FINAL POINT: Has the White House dumped the “torn document” itself? The White House doesn’t seem to have cited the doc this past week. Does the White House stand behind the Bush campaign’s claims about the torn document? News orgs—happily selecting the facts that they like—don’t seem inclined to go there.