Yellow journalism

September 14, 2004|By Douglas MacKinnon

WASHINGTON - Are some in the mainstream media stretching the boundaries of journalistic integrity by deliberately timing the release of debatable or sensational stories designed to hurt the campaign of President Bush?

With the curious revisiting of Mr. Bush's Air National Guard service by a major TV network and several major print organizations, and the eager promotion of a book full of unsubstantiated rumors by another major network and a number of print organizations, the answer seems to be "yes."

This is something professional, unbiased journalists need to discuss. I have defended former President Bill Clinton against such yellow journalism and now question these attacks against Mr. Bush. Ultimately, any partisan reporting reflects upon the entire profession.

Toward that end, the major networks were shocked when, for the first time, the Fox News Channel beat all three by an unprecedented margin in the ratings during the Republican Convention. Why did Fox win? Because many Americans, not just Republicans or conservatives, have grown suspect of the content delivered by the networks and the mainstream press.

The onslaught against Mr. Bush now taking place in the media is a prime example of that. 60 Minutes last week aired an interview with former Texas Democratic House Speaker Ben Barnes and showcased never-before-seen records pertaining to Mr. Bush's National Guard service - records that many now suspect are forgeries.

Mr. Barnes has been in and out of the Bush National Guard story for years and conveniently has resurfaced yet again. Why? To repeat that a Texas businessman contacted him about helping Mr. Bush get into the Air National Guard. That's it? Why would CBS use a prime-time slot to regurgitate news that has been dissected by the media for 10 years?

What some in the mainstream media may be reluctant to say about Mr. Barnes and his decades-old memories is that Mr. Barnes is not only a close friend of John Kerry's, but one of his largest financial backers.

Mr. Barnes is a Kerry campaign vice chairman who has raised over $100,000 for Mr. Kerry and has donated nearly $400,000 to other Democratic campaigns. So, with no new news to break, and knowing Mr. Barnes is a Kerry operative, CBS still gave him a national platform. Does anyone really believe that a Republican with a similar background would be granted such a forum on CBS to tarnish the reputation of Mr. Kerry?

Next, we have NBC News, via the Today show, using Kitty Kelley's controversial new book on the Bush family to trash the reputation of Mr. Bush, his wife, Laura, his parents, and his siblings. For three consecutive mornings this week, Today is to feature Ms. Kelley on its program. Why would it spotlight such a highly criticized and suspect author?

As was just reported, Newsweek was given an advance copy of Ms. Kelley's book for a possible story "and we passed," said Editor Mark Whitaker. "We weren't comfortable with a lot of the reporting." Time Managing Editor Jim Kelly said excerpting a book "by Kitty Kelley is a problematic proposition." It is with good reason that he makes such a statement.

In Ms. Kelley's book, which the White House has denounced as "lies," she charges that Mr. Bush used cocaine at Camp David while his father was president. Her source? The president's ex-sister-in-law, Sharon Bush. But she denies the charge. Oops.

In a statement Wednesday, Mrs. Bush said, "I categorically deny that I ever told Kitty Kelley that George W. Bush used cocaine at Camp David or that I ever saw him use cocaine at Camp David. When Kitty Kelley raised drug use at Camp David, I responded by saying something along the lines of, `Who would say such a thing?' Although there have been tensions between me and various members of the Bush family, I cannot allow this falsehood to go unchallenged."

And yet knowing this and knowing other national shows are "uninviting" Ms. Kelley off their programs, NBC News still plans to blanket the airwaves with what can only be described as slander. Why? If not political, what is the motivation?

There must be journalists who are offended by this type of character assassination, who expect more from their profession and who will say enough is enough.

Douglas MacKinnon, a press secretary to former Sen. Bob Dole, is a former White House and Pentagon official and a novelist.

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