The glass house of conservative journalism: CBS's attackers shouldn't be throwing stones
Research ››› ››› GABE WILDAU, MICHELLE JEUNG, ANDREW SEIFTER & AVI ZOLLMAN
While the controversy over the authenticity of memos exposed by CBS regarding President George W. Bush's National Guard service continues to grow and new evidence continues to surface, to several conservative pundits, the debate has already been settled. Apparently basing their conclusion in part on reporting by National Review's Byron York and The Weekly Standard's Stephen F. Hayes, both of whom make assertions that have been refuted, these pundits have concluded that the documents are forgeries. Yet, as Media Matters for America has extensively documented, some of the pundits who seem the most confident that the documents are fake have previously compromised their standing and credibility as journalists by peddling falsehoods and misinformation in the media.
L. Brent Bozell III is the founder and president of the conservative Media Research Center, whose Cybercast News Service division quickly followed right-wing bloggers in detailing on September 9 evidence to support the claim that the memos were forged. On September 10, Bozell issued a press release calling on CBS to "Come Clean on [the] Fraudulent Memos" -- an ironic demand given his own history of lies and misinformation.
Apparently oblivious to the media coverage given to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Bozell claimed that the anti-Kerry group was "completely ignored by the media" at its original press conference in May despite the fact that it received substantial coverage on cable news that day, as MMFA noted at the time. Bozell has also touted lies, claiming that "[Enron CEO] Ken Lay spent 13 nights ... in Bill Clinton's Lincoln Bedroom," though he did not actually spend a single night there.
FOX News Channel's Hannity & Colmes co-host Sean Hannity stated on the September 10 edition of the program that it is "very clear ... the overwhelming evidence in this case is that it's a hoax," adding later in the show that they are "most likely forged documents."
Hannity has a long track record of using misleading GOP talking points and distortions to advance the Republican Party's political agenda. For example, as MMFA has documented, Hannity has repeatedly distorted Senator John Kerry's record on intelligence and defense spending, falsely asserted that Kerry has declared himself the "anti-war candidate," presented misleading figures on job creation to boost President George W. Bush's economic record, falsely claimed that Bush inherited the "Clinton-Gore" recession, and erroneously accused MoveOn.org of running ads that likened Bush to Adolf Hitler.
Radio host Rush Limbaugh began the September 10 edition of his show by asserting that "[t]he big story that's out there is forged documents utilized by CBS's 60 Minutes." Later in the program, Limbaugh blamed the Democratic Party for "spreading forged documents around."
Limbaugh has used his radio program as a launching pad to spread outrageous remarks and misinformation, including likening the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal to "an out-of-control fraternity prank," and most recently, claiming that Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has not spoken out against the recent examination into President Bush's National Guard duty because the former prisoner of war McCain is being "held as a POW by the Kerry camp, in the Kerry Hilton somewhere." Limbaugh has also proven a highly unreliable source for information, mischaracterizing topics such as education spending, the minimum wage, the federal deficit, and the Kyoto Protocol, among others.
On the September 11 edition of FOX News Channel's The Beltway Boys, host and Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes declared, "They turned out in all likelihood to have been forgeries ... far more likely than not they're forgeries." However, as MMFA has previously documented, there is ample reason to question Barnes' own credibility, especially on the topic of Bush's service in the National Guard.
Barnes had already concluded on August 17 that Bush completed his service obligations, claiming that "copious records ... show he did show up." The military records that had been made public at that point did not conclusively show that Bush fulfilled his National Guard service -- indeed, there is ample evidence that Bush failed to show up for duty when he was supposed to -- and recent reports by the Associated Press and The Boston Globe have called Bush's service further into question. MMFA has also documented Barnes' promotion of the discredited anti-Kerry book Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, co-authored by Jerome R. Corsi and Swift Boat Vets co-founder John E. O'Neill; his misrepresenting Senator John Kerry's (D-MA) record on intelligence spending; his misrepresenting a recent survey of journalists; and his falsely defending Bush's public case for war in Iraq as well as Bush's proposed plans for troop withdrawal.
On the September 11 edition of CNN's The Capital Gang, National Review Washington editor Kate O'Beirne also advanced the idea that "[T]he weight of opinion is that they're [the memos] probably phonies. So this one we can get an answer to." But O'Beirne has a history of pushing phony information herself.
On August 28, O'Beirne called the anti-Kerry veteran, retired Rear Admiral William L. Schachte Jr., who claims that he knows that Kerry's first Purple Heart was undeserved because he was on the mission for which Kerry received the award an "eyewitness ... a credible witness." Yet Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's own website, as well as other witnesses, contradicted Schachte's account. (Swift Boat Veterans for Truth subsequently altered its website's account of the incident to make it consistent with Schachte's version of events after MMFA noted the inconsistency.) MMFA has also documented O'Beirne misrepresenting the majority of Americans' views on abortion, distorting Kerry's past statements, and distorting presidential polling.
On the September 12 edition of FOX Broadcasting Co.'s FOX News Sunday, FOX News Channel managing editor and chief Washington correspondent Brit Hume followed Barnes and O'Beirne in pronouncing the case all but closed and accused CBS of "stonewalling." Hume responded to a question from host Chris Wallace:
HUME: Chris, that you had it absolutely right earlier when you referred to them as 'new' documents. I suspect they are quite new, and I think the evidence points strongly in that direction. You can't prove it either way. ... I think these documents look almost, almost certainly, to me anyway, like forgeries. I think CBS News has been taken for a ride. I think basically what CBS News has been doing now is stonewalling.
In making this judgment, Hume was presumably relying in large part on misleading reporting by National Review White House correspondent Byron York, whom Hume interviewed on the September 9 edition of FOX News Channel's Special Report with Brit Hume. In that interview, York falsely claimed that 1970s-era typewriters were unable to produce the superscripted "th" found in one of the contested documents. "[T]his [superscript] is something that everyone says was just not done on typewriters," York said. In fact, as MMFA has already noted, superscripted letters appear on other documents in Bush's military file known to be authentic, and IBM's Selectric II and Selectric Composer typewriters, introduced in the 1960s, were capable of producing superscript. (MMFA has also documented York's boosting of claims by Dr. Louis Letson, a member of the discredited group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, that he treated Kerry for the wound that resulted in Kerry's first Purple Heart, despite the fact that the "sick call sheet" indicates that another medical official treated Kerry for the wound.)
Hume also has a history of repeating false pro-Republican claims. He touted the widely discredited allegations against Senator John Kerry in Unfit for Command, calling the book "a remarkably well-done document." Similarly, when House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) implied without evidence that liberal financier George Soros derived his wealth from drug cartels, Hume claimed that "Hastert never said" such a thing.
Moments later on FOX News Sunday, Weekly Standard executive editor and FOX News Channel contributor William Kristol echoed Hume, putting forth a confident-sounding judgment that the documents are fake:
KRISTOL: I mean, first of all, I've looked into this a bit. Excuse me. The Weekly Standard has done some reporting on this. I'm almost certain they are.
WALLACE: Certain they are what?
KRISTOL: Forgeries. I think we will discover that. I don't think this will become or remain a murky issue. There's a lot of evidence, a lot of tests that could be done, further data will come out.
But The Weekly Standard's reporting on the forgery issue has been faulty. Staff writer Stephen F. Hayes, who published the magazine's two stories on the issue, suggested that the presence of superscript, proportional spacing and curled apostrophes in the memos raised serious questions about their authenticity, ignoring what MMFA and many others have noted -- that typewriters available at the time were capable of these functions. (MMFA has noted Hayes's compromised credibility on other occasions as well.)
Moreover, like Hume and Hayes, Kristol himself has a history of misleading claims designed to boost Republicans. During the Republican National Convention, Kristol defended Senator Zell Miller (D-GA) from critics who pointed out that his attacks on Kerry involved a series of massive distortions of Kerry's Senate record. Of Miller's charge that Kerry's Senate records prove he's weak on defense, Kristol said. "[I]t's a consistent pattern. It's not a made-up, one gotcha vote on an obscure appropriations bill." Kristol also falsely claimed that Kerry was "now even with Bush in money" at a time when Bush had outraised Kerry by more than $100 million.
Syndicated columnist and CNN's Crossfire co-host Robert D. Novak urged CBS to reveal the identity of its secret source who provided the documents. The irony of Novak's urging another reporter to reveal secret sources in the name of journalistic integrity -- while himself refusing to reveal the White House source who leaked the name of CIA covert operative Valerie Plame -- was not lost on Novak's co-panelist (and executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal) Albert R. Hunt. Novak identified Plame in a 2003 column; a federal grand jury is investigating the case.
From the September 11 editon of CNN's The Capital Gang:
NOVAK: I'd like CBS, at this point, to say where they got these documents from. They didn't get them from a CIA agent. I don't believe there was any laws involved. I don't think we'll have a special prosecutor, if they tell. I think they should say where they got these documents because I thought it was a very poor job of reporting by CBS. Why did CBS not go to the -- to Killian's family and get -- and ask them about it, as ABC did, and got these quotes, and they said they think they're phony documents -- I thought -- I thought that the 60 Minutes thing by Dan Rather was a -- was a campaign operation, rather than an attempt to get to the bottom of the truth.
HUNT: Robert Novak, you're saying CBS should reveal its source?
HUNT: You do? You think reporters ought to reveal sources?
NOVAK: No, no. Wait a minute.
HUNT: I'm just asking.
NOVAK: I'm just saying in that case.
NOVAK: I think -- I think it's very important. If this is a phony document, the American -- the people should know about it.
HUNT: So in some cases, reporters ought to reveal sources.
HUNT: But not in all cases.
NOVAK: That's right.
Novak has also recently raised questions about his own credibility in promoting the anti-Kerry book Unfit for Command, while failing to disclose his ties to the book's publisher, Regnery Publishing, Inc. While Novak did eventually acknowledge that his son Alex Novak is the director of marketing for Regnery on September 6 (a week after The New York Times revealed the link), he has yet to disclose his other ties, which MMFA documented on August 30.