Wednesday, April 14, 2004

KERRY AND THE GLOBE. Talk about timing. Yesterday, Slate's Tim Noah posted a follow-up to a piece he'd written earlier contending that the Boston Globe despises John Kerry. Noah argues that Globe editor Marty Baron's preface to a new book, John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best, "demonstrates Kerry's unique ability to get under the Globe's skin."

This morning, the Globe published a front-page, below-the-fold story by Michael Kranish - the lead author of the Kerry bio - questioning whether Kerry deserved the first of the three Purple Hearts he won while serving in the Vietnam War. The story, headlined "Kerry Faces Questions over Purple Heart," examines the claims of a few right-wing Vietnam veterans who've never gotten over Kerry's becoming a leading anti-war activist after he returned home.

Kranish writes:

"He had a little scratch on his forearm, and he was holding a piece of shrapnel," recalled Kerry's commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Grant Hibbard. "People in the office were saying, 'I don't think we got any fire,' and there is a guy holding a little piece of shrapnel in his palm." Hibbard said he couldn't be certain whether Kerry actually came under fire on Dec. 2, 1968, the date in question and that is why he said he asked Kerry questions about the matter.

But Kerry persisted and, to his own "chagrin," Hibbard said, he dropped the matter. "I do remember some questions, some correspondence about it," Hibbard said. "I finally said, 'OK, if that's what happened ... do whatever you want.' After that, I don't know what happened. Obviously, he got it, I don't know how."

Kerry declined to talk to the Globe about the issue during the preparation of the Kerry biography. But his press secretary, Michael Meehan, noted that the Navy concluded that Kerry deserved the Purple Heart.

Kranish's piece, overall, is fair: he points out at great length that regardless of whether Kerry deserved his first Purple Heart, it is nevertheless true that his reputation for heroism under fire is well-deserved. But the pullquote, from Hibbard - "I've had thorns from a rose that were worse" - is absolutely brutal.

The Globe has developed something of a reputation for Kerry-bashing during this presidential campaign. In addition to Tim Noah's two-parter, ABC News's political dope sheet, The Note, last November got at how just-fired Kerry-campaign chief Jim Jordan felt about the Globe by writing a fictional letter from Jordan to his replacement, Mary Beth Cahill. "Jordan" whacked the Globe for "what is the most relentlessly negative coverage of any presidential candidate EVER by a hometown paper - and I mean the news page. Don't even get me started on the op-ed page." (Media Log realizes that this is so post-modern as to be meaningless.)

During a recent interview, I asked Baron about the perception that the Globe is anti-Kerry. Among other things, Baron called Noah's first piece "silly." It didn't make it into the piece I was working on (hey, I only had 8000 words!), but here is part of the exchange we had:

Q: How do you plead?

A: I plead objective. We're covering him like we cover anybody else. Obviously there were some stories that he probably would have preferred not to see. We spent a lot of time researching John Kerry, more than anybody else had, as far as I can tell. The seven-part series that we did last June was as thorough a piece on a politician that's probably run anywhere in a newspaper. Maybe that's a bit of hyperbole, but I think it was pretty damn thorough. And in the process we learned a lot about John Kerry that had not been previously known. Look, he's running for president, we should know that.

There were things that we wrote about Howard Dean that the Howard Dean campaign was not terribly happy to see, and that actually affected his campaign in a major way. The stuff about attracting offshore companies, special tax breaks for insurance companies, things of that sort. The tax plan. They weren't terribly happy to see those stories, either. John Kerry used those stories to his advantage.

Q: When does the Kerry book come out?

A: Next month. It's written. It's finished.

Q: How far does this move beyond the seven-part series? Is there a lot of new material?

A: Yeah, I actually think there is new material. It's substantially longer than the seven-part series, obviously, in order to make a book. But in the process the reporters had a lot of additional material in their notebooks. They also did additional reporting for the book, and posed additional questions to the Kerry campaign. Some of those questions were answered. Not all of those questions were answered.

Q: What do you hope the book will accomplish?

A: That people will have a complete understanding of John Kerry, as best as it can be developed at this point. Obviously I think it's important, and I thought it was important when we went into this campaign, that the Boston Globe be the source, the definitive source for information about John Kerry. That I didn't think we should leave any crumbs on the table for anybody else to pick up. That we should do a thorough job, that we should be the point of reference for anyone who really wants to know about John Kerry. And that should be our job as the major newspaper in this market.

So does the Globe have it in for Kerry? A few columnists do. But as I told Noah back in January, and as he acknowledged, there really isn't anyone at the Globe who despises Kerry as much as do Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr and WLVI-TV (Channel 56) political analyst Jon Keller. More than anything, though, I think the Globe's coverage of Kerry shows that it's not the same paper that gave aid and succor to the Kennedys and other liberal Democrats for many years. That began to change under Baron's predecessor, Matt Storin, and has accelerated since the arrival of Baron, in 2001.

Is the story of Kerry's first Purple Heart legitimate? Yes, but just barely. If Kerry's war heroism were being questioned, that would be one thing, but Kranish's story doesn't do that. More than anything, Kranish is advancing the agenda of the sort of extremists who still hold signs reading "Vietnam Vets Are Not Fonda Jane." While Kerry may have been seeking a less-than-meaningful Purple Heart, George W. Bush was presumably memorizing the names of his frat brothers at Yale.

But Baron's philosophy is that the Globe is going to report everything about Kerry, and not "leave any crumbs on the table." That's not negative reporting. It is aggressive reporting, more aggressive than Kerry has perhaps been used to over the years. And, in this particular case, bordering on being more aggressive than is warranted by what happened all those years ago.

WHAT WAS THE QUESTION? George W. Bush last night gave his first televised news conference since before the war in Iraq. I caught it in chunks. I have no immediate reaction, but here was the toughest question (full transcript), followed by Bush's answer/non-answer:

Q: Mr. President, before the war you and members of your administration made several claims about Iraq. That US troops would be greeted as liberators with sweets and flowers. That Iraqi oil revenue would pay for most of the reconstruction. And that Iraq not only had weapons of mass destruction, but as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said, we know where they are. How do you explain to Americans how you got that so wrong? And how do you answer your opponents who say that you took this nation to war on the basis of what have turned out to be a series of false premises?

A: Well, let me step back and review my thinking prior to going into Iraq. First, the lesson of September 11 is when this nation sees a threat, a gathering threat, we've got to deal with it. We can no longer hope that oceans protect us from harm. Every threat we must take seriously.

Saddam Hussein was a threat. He was a threat because he had used weapons of mass destruction on his own people. He was a threat because he coddled terrorists. He was a threat because he funded suiciders [sic]. He was a threat to the region. He was a threat to the United States. That's the assessment that I made from the intelligence, the assessment that Congress made from the intelligence. That's the exact same assessment that the United Nations Security Council made with the intelligence.

I went to the UN as you might recall and said, Either you take care of him or we will. Anytime an American president says, If you don't, we will, we better be prepared to. And I was prepared to. I thought it was important for the United Nations Security Council that when it says something, it means something for the sake of security in the world. See, the war on terror had changed the calculations. We needed to work with people. People needed to come together - and therefore, empty words would embolden the actions of those who are willing to kill indiscriminately. The United Nations passed a Security Council resolution unanimously that said, Disarm or face serious consequences. And he refused to disarm.

I thought it was very interesting that Charlie Duelfer, who just came back - he's the head of the Iraqi Survey Group - reported some interesting findings from his recent tour there. And one of the things was he was amazed at how deceptive the Iraqis had been toward UNMOVIC and UNSCOM [the UN agencies that searched Iraq for weapons of mass destruction], deceptive at hiding things. We knew they were hiding things. A country that hides something is a country that is afraid of getting caught. And that was part of our calculation. Charlie confirmed that. He also confirmed that Saddam had a - the ability to produce biological and chemical weapons. In other words, he was a danger. He had long-range missiles that were undeclared to the United Nations. He was a danger. And so we dealt with him.

What else, part of the question? Oh, oil revenues. Well, the oil revenues are, they're bigger than we thought they would be at this point in time. I mean one year after the liberation of Iraq, the revenues of the oil stream is pretty darn significant. One of the things I was concerned about prior to going into Iraq was that the oil fields would be destroyed. But they weren't. They're now up and running. And that money is, it will benefit the Iraqi people. It's their oil. And they'll use it to reconstruct the country.

Finally, the attitude of the Iraqis toward the American people: it's an interesting question. They're really pleased we got rid of Saddam Hussein. And you can understand why. This is a guy who's a torturer, a killer, a maimer. There's mass graves. I mean he was a horrible individual that really shocked the country in many ways, shocked it into kind of a fear of making decisions toward liberty. That's what we've seen recently. Some citizens are fearful of stepping up. And they were happy - they're not happy they're occupied. I wouldn't be happy if I were occupied either.

They do want us there to help with security. And that's why this transfer of sovereignty is an important signal to send. And it's why it's also important for them to hear we will stand with them until they become a free country.

Okay, now. Where are the weapons? What did Rumsfeld mean? Why did we have to lay out $87 billion when the oil revenues were supposed to pay for the occupation? Why are the Iraqis killing Americans?

Never mind. Next question.

FREE-SPEECH FORUM. On Thursday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Cambridge Public Library, I'll be taking part in a panel put together by PEN New England's Freedom to Write Committee.

Billed as a forum on the Patriot Act, I'll be joined by library director Susan Flannery, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, and ACLU of Massachusetts executive director Carol Rose. The discussion will be moderated by Judith Nies and introduced by Fred Marchant.

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