WEDNESDAY, MAY 7, 2003
A TALE OF TWO STORIES: It wasnt hard to summarize Walter Robinsons great report. Robinson, a reporter for the Boston Globe, reviewed 160 pages of [Bushs] records, assembled by the Globe from a variety of sources and supplemented by interviews with former Guard officials. In his May 23, 2000 report, the scribe explained what he had found: From May 1972 through May 1973, Bush had apparently been absent from his National Guard duties. His commander in Alabama, General William Turnipseed, said that Bush had failed to report for duty in the fall of 1972. And in May 1973, Bushs officers at Ellington Air Force Base (Houston) couldnt perform his annual evaluation. Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of this report, they wrote.
Should the great report have laid Bush low? That, of course, is a matter of judgment; it never much flipped us out here. But by normal journalistic standards, Robinsons report was real news. The Globesman presented new information about a basic part of Bushs life. And biography has long been a standard way our White House hopefuls are covered. By normal standards, the information in this report should have been reviewed by the rest of the press.
But news orgs fled from the story (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/6/03). In particular, its amazing to see the way Inside Politics ducked the great report. Every day, for sixty long minutes, the CNN program limned the Bush-Gore campaign. But Inside Politics went to great lengths to bury the info in Robinsons report. The program struggled to keep its viewers from hearing that missing year chatter.
And make no mistakeInside Politics had to work extra-hard to avoid the National Guard story. In a classic case of bad timing, Robinsons report appeared on May 23, shortly before Memorial Day. Six days later, Bush and Gore were honoring fallen soldiers. At Inside Politics, Bernie Shaw performed nobly:
SHAW (5/29/00): Vice President Gore marked Memorial Day in western Pennsylvania with a wreath and a speech honoring those who gave their lives while touching lightly on his own Vietnam record.Bush didnt mention his service as a pilot? You can bet your bippy he didntand Shaw didnt mention the Globe report, which had appeared just six days before. But then, Inside Politics had clearly decided to duck the missing year report. Its hard to believe, but from May 23 to Election Day, the shows viewers heard the topic mentioned just onceon August 22, when guest pundit Jake Tapper (Salon) mentioned the matter in passing. But you could get reports about Bushs great service. During the GOP National Convention, for example, Shaw served this sun-splashed account of the Texans fine stint in the Guard:
SHAW (8/1/00): After Yale, he was eligible for the military draft.Its pretty clear that he got a lot of high grades? It was also pretty clear that hed been gone for the better part of a year, but Inside Pol wasnt planning to say so. Even when major Dems challenged Bush on the matter, Inside Politics kept the news off the air. Three years later, C-SPAN viewers were being told that the press beat this story near to death.
One final point about that great report. If the corps had responded to all of Robinsons stories the way it did to this one report, theres every chance that Candidate Gore would have found his way to the White House. During Campaign 2000, no one trashed Gore the way Robinson did. On January 26, 2000, he penned a lengthy, page-one report about what a big crook Gore was (headline: GORES LOBBYIST CONTRIBUTORS REAP ACCESS). Two days later, he wrote a detailed, front-page report about what a big liar Gore was (headline: GORE RECORD SCRUTINIZED FOR VERACITY). The timing of these tendentious pieces was striking; the crucial New Hampshire primary was just days away, but Gore was slammed twice on the Globes front page (the paper is a major force in New Hampshire). Despite the pounding, Gore survived the Granite State race, and on April 11, Robinson struck again, with a 3000-word front-page story (headline: RECORD SHOWS GORE LONG EMBELLISHING TRUTH). This may have been the most disingenuous article of the entire campaign. How extreme was Robinsons fakery? He even pretended, three separate times, that he didnt understand why Gore had claimed seven years of journalistic experience. (Duh. Gore had spent two years as an army scribe, then five years at the Nashville Tennessean.) Journalism rarely gets this phony.
But it was Robinsons final shot at Gore that may have decided the race. On September 18, he penned the ludicrous doggy-pill story, one of the silliest efforts of the campaign. Gore had been seizing control of the race when this story appeared in the Globe; his lead in the polls had begun to hit double figures. But campaign coverage turned on a dime in the wake of the dog-pill report. Two days later, Walter Shapiro penned an even more ludicrous piece, igniting the union lullaby flap. The press returned to its Gore-bashing ways, and the hopefuls numbers began to drop. This led directly to the trashing Gore took after the October 3 debate.
And there you had the campaign in a nutshell. On May 23, Robinson presented a detailed, well-researched piece about Bush. The press corps buried the story cold. Four months later, he penned his foolish doggy-pill piece. It produced a press corps sensation. You could almost say that Campaign 2000 became, that day, A Tale of Two Stories. Robinsons report on Bush had been deep-sixed. His foofaw on Gore turned the fall.
By the waydo you see how phony Chris Matthews was, implying that Robinson just hated poor Bush (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/5/03)? But then, your press corps is now just a form of pro wrestling. Before Keith Olbermann asks Matthews more questions, will somebody please let him know?
THURSDAY OR FRIDAY: Bill Bennetts real vice.
BARTLETTS INFESTATIONS: By the way, with whom did Robinson work on his doggy-pill story? According to Evan Thomas lengthy, post-election report in Newsweek, Robinson worked with the Bush campaign as he developed his arthritis-pill bombshell. Robinson called a Bush operative named Dan Bartlett when he began work on the story, Thomas said. According to Thomas, Robinson and Bartlett worked together for weeks, even after the September 18 report appeared in the Globe.
Is there something wrong with this sort of collaboration? Not necessarily, no. If a campaign has valid information to give, theres no reason why reporters shouldnt take it. But there is something wrong in cases like this, where campaigns are pushing absurd pseudo-stories. Indeed, how mindless can the modern press be? Here is Thomas embarrassing account of Robinsons ongoing efforts:
EVAN THOMAS: Two weeks [after the September 18 report] Bartlett was still helping the Globes Robinson comb through Gores bio spots, his paid ads extolling his family background. Robinson had a hunch that Shiloh [the Gores dog] had been digitally removed from the ads that were still running on TV. They rubbed out the dog, Bartlett drawled with a mild giggle. See if we cant revive the story one more time.The dog had not been deleted, Thomas wrote, so they couldnt revive the mindless story. But in this anecdote, we see how far modern scribes will go in pursuit of inane pseudo-stories. With control of the White House on the line, Robinson hoped to report that the Gores family dog had been digitally bumped from a Gore TV ad! Surely, dysfunctional is too kind a word to apply to the work of this press.
The Daily update
SULLYING KRUGMAN: In his eponymous dotcom, Andrew Sullivan suggests that Paul Krugman has glossed the facts of the missing year case. Sullivan refers to a New York Times report of November 3, 2000. The report directly referenced Robinsons prior work; in it, Jo Thomas judged that some of [Robinsons] concerns may be unfounded. Documents reviewed by The Times showed that Mr. Bush served in at least 9 of the 17 months in question.
Thomas short, 539-word piece was, in fact, quite sketchy. Even she found a seven-month gap (April 1972 to November 1972) in which Bush performed no service. In some ways, Thomas even seemed a bit slick. For example, she quoted General Turnipseed in such a way as to suggest that Bush had served in Alabama (see Sullivans item today). But she failed to mention Turnipseeds repeated statements that Bush had not served there. In fact, Thomas seemed to refer to only one document which allegedly contradicted what Robinson had said. Here is the passage in question:
JO THOMAS (11/3/00): [Bush spokesman Dan] Bartlett pointed to a document in Mr. Bushs military records that showed credit for four days of duty ending Nov. 29 and for eight days ending Dec. 14, 1972, and, after he moved back to Houston, on dates in January, April and May.Thomas didnt explain why the Bush camp hadnt made this document available earlier. Earlier, the campaign had offered odd documents intended to contradict claims against Bush. In a report on October 31, Robinson had described one such doc:
ROBINSON (10/31/00): Dan Bartlett, a Bush campaign spokesman, pointed to incomplete recordsone a torn page without Bushs name or any discernible datesas evidence that he did enough drills in Houston in the closing months of his service to satisfy military obligations.According to Robinsons report on this date, There are no records in his file to show that he did any training in Alabama. Bartlett, of course, was the dedicated truth-seeker who had been working hard to bring out the truth about that dog in the Gore TV ads. There was surely no chance that a gullible scribe could be getting shaky info from him.
In short, Robinson and Thomas penned reports within four days of each other. Each cited Bartlett as their sourcebut their information seemed to stand in stark contrast. And we think you know what happened next. No one made the slightest effort to sort out the matters in question. The press let the story drop; as far as we know, no one has ever tried to sort out the contradictory Globe/Times reporting. Obvious question: Was Thomas referring to the document which was in fact a torn page without Bushs name? This document had been described beforeand its value, of course, was enormously shaky. Is that the document on which Thomas relied? From her report, there is no way to telland the corps didnt try to find out.
By the way, do you see why that C-SPAN caller asked his apt question: Why is it we cannot find out about George Bushs military record?
At any rate, none of this speaks to the question we raisedthe corps avoidance of Robinsons great report when it appeared back in May. Whatever document Thomas was citing, its clear that the Bush campaign didnt bring it forward back in the spring of the year. Here at THE HOWLER, we never much cared about the Bush-in-the-National-Guard missing year story. But Robinsons May 23 report was real newsand the corps struggled hard to ignore it. Last week, a group of scribes seemed to be spinning the story down still.