Lyons: "For once, press acts just as it should"

As most of you who read my (now on hiatus) blog know, I like Gene Lyons.

So here’s Gene’s column for the week:

For once, press acts just as it should

Gene Lyons

Posted on Wednesday, January 21, 2004

To me, the single most significant event of the 2004 election campaign

hasn’t been the Iowa caucuses or President Bush’s State of the Union

address. Rather, it was the quick debunking of an attempted smear of

retired Gen. Wesley Clark by a half-dozen or so news organizations

functioning exactly as a free press should. Basically, the Republican

National Committee got caught doctoring Clark’s words in a vain attempt

to manufacture a “flip-flop” on the Iraq war. Given the dreadful

standard set during the 2000 campaign, when the Washington insiders who

set the tone of political coverage at the nation’s major newspapers,

magazines and TV networks conducted themselves like a high school clique

trying to fix a prom queen election, the Clark incident came as a

welcome surprise. Has war sobered them, or has American journalism begun

to recover from Ted Baxter Syndrome?

Ted Baxter, for the uninitiated, was the comically pompous anchorman on

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Like many celebrity pundits of the cable TV

era, he thought the news was about him.

But hold the sociology. First, a quick outline of the ill-fated effort

to portray Clark as a two-faced opportunist. Whether or not the incident

shows GOP fear of facing the former four-star general in the November

election, as Clark insisted, it definitely indicates that turning the

Democratic nominee into a caricature won’t be as easy as lampooning Al

Gore with phony stories like “inventing the Internet,” ” earth-tone

clothing, “etc.

What happened was that on the same day RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie had a

speech scheduled in Little Rock, Clark’s hometown, the infamous” Drudge

Report” just happened to produce one of its “worldwide exclusives”

claiming to show that, contrary to his campaign rhetoric in New

Hampshire, Clark supported Bush’s rush to war with Iraq during

congressional testimony in 2002.

In his speech, Gillespie portrayed Clark as a hypocrite and turncoat.

“There was no stronger case made than that expert testimony, the

testimony of Gen. Wesley Clark,” Gillespie claimed.

Drudge “reported” a passage from Clark’s testimony that was suspiciously

like to that in an RNC fax. “There’s no question that Saddam Hussein is

a threat,” Clark supposedly said. “… Yes, he has chemical and

biological weapons. He’s had those for a long time. But the United

States right now is on a very much different defensive posture than we

were before September 11 th of 2001…. He is, as far as we know,

actively pursuing nuclear capabilities, though he doesn’t have nuclear

warheads yet. If he were to acquire nuclear weapons, I think our friends

in the region would face greatly increased risks as would we.”

But the quote turned out to be problematic, as Knight-Ridder reporters

Dana Hull and Drew Brown determined in an article headlined: “GOP chair

claims Clark supported war; transcripts show otherwise.”

Clark’s words had been taken completely out of context. In fact, he had

pointedly argued that Iraq was a manageable problem and no imminent

threat existed. He’d urged that Bush form “the broadest possible

coalition including our NATO allies…. [Force] should be used as the

last resort after all diplomatic means have been exhausted.”

The reporters also noticed that the Drudge/RNC quote “further distorted

Clark’s testimony” by adding sentences they were unable to find in the

transcript. Dogged research by the estimable Josh Marshall on his

Talking Points Memo Web site subsequently determined that the first and

last sentences appeared on Page 6, the bit about post-9/11 defensive

posture on Pages 25-26. Indeed, Clark argued that the U.S. was actually

in a better strategic position vs. Iraq, leaving ample time for

diplomacy.

In short, Clark’s words had been yanked out context and their order

jumbled to alter their meaning. The ellipses concealed gaps of 11,500

words, roughly a dozen times the length of this column. I’d argue they

were essentially manufactured quotes, a firing offense at any

self-respecting journalistic organization—not a phrase which describes

“The Drudge Report.”

The heartening part was that it wasn’t only Knight-Ridder and Josh

Marshall and liberal watchdog sites like mediawhoresonline. com that

blew the whistle. While some of the usual suspects such as The

Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal Editorial page got taken

(or pretended to get taken) for a ride, many others did not.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review’s brand-new Web site, The

Campaign Desk, “most of the major newspapers including the Washington

Post, the New York Times and the Boston Globe ran pieces reflecting the

whole story.” (The Democrat-Gazette also got it right.)

The brainchild of the renowned journalism school’s new dean, Nicholas

Lemman, CJR’s new enterprise means to provide “real-time” media

criticism putting the Paula Zahns of the world on notice. (On her CNN

broadcast, Zahn treated the Drudge quotes as factual.) Next time,

sweetheart, do your homework and get the facts. Your professional

reputation may once again depend upon it.

Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of

the National Magazine Award.