Gene Lyons--Arkansas' Best Journalism Right Here On NLTCP!
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
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
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
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.
End of Gene Lyons
------------------------- But Now I Must Post This Lovely Poem-------------------
Ode to CNN's phony prevaricator Paula Zahn:
(paula & drudge
(sitting in a tree
(first comes love
(then comes marriage
(then comes paula with a baby carriage!