Friday, February 13, 2004


Kerry and Bush: Media Double Standards?

Is John Kerry unfairly being given a pass by the mass media with respect to Matt Drudge's allegations of infidelity with a young intern, while George W. Bush is being unfairly pilloried for the possibility that he was AWOL in 1972 and 1973? Glenn Reynolds wants to know.

I think it's entirely possible that a double standard will occur, but the key point I would emphasize is that it hasn't happened yet. Remember that the mass media didn't do much with the Bush AWOL story for a long time. It came and went in 1994, it came and went again in 2000. It took persistent repetitions of the story in the blogosphere, an intemperate question by Peter Jennings, a noncommittal response by Wesley Clark, and a strong endorsement of the theory by the chairman of the DNC to finally get the ball rolling. None of those things has happened yet with Drudge's accusations about Kerry's infidelity (which may not be infidelity at all if he was unmarried at the time that the alleged liaison occurred). The press takes time before it is willing to broach such a story. If one of the Democratic candidates vouched for the story in public, or if the chairman of the RNC started to assert it, then the mainstream press would almost certainly begin to cover it. They would cover it because Dean or Edwards or Clark or the chairman of the Republican National Committee or the White House Press Secretary said it on the record. But no mainstream politician has been willing to step up to the plate.

In any case, if the press does begin to take up the story at some point, we also have to consider what the Kerry story, if true, tells us about Kerry, and what the Bush story, if true, tells us about Bush. These are different things, and the press might think that the stories concern different issues. In Bush's case, for example, the issues concern whether he is a shirker, whether he is a hypocrite for sending people off to die when he avoided service, whether he broke applicable military regulations, whether he got special consideration in his initial assignments and special treatment thereafter because he was well connected, whether he avoided punishment for shirking for similar reasons, whether his ability to "work things out" with the military so he could attend Harvard Business School instead of completing his service like the average person is evidence of special treatment, whether his failure to take a medical examination was an attempt to hide features of his past that are even more embarrassing, and whether his selective release of dental records in recent days is indicative of the Administration general inability to be straight with the American people. Kerry's story, if proven true, would suggest other things about Kerry, some of them quite unflattering, but they would be different things. For example, Kerry has not yet promised to be forthcoming on the question at hand and the next day withheld evidence that he promised on national television he would provide. The Bush story is in a different posture and has a different history than the Kerry story. That is another reason to wait a bit before we declare them morally equivalent in all respects.

Finally, we have to ask whether the degree of evidence in both stories is the same or different. In Kerry's case, we have a single anonymous source reported by Drudge. In Bush's case, we have various records of and statements about his military service and multiple statements by identified persons that have led many people to conclude that Bush has not been entirely forthcoming about the circumstances of his National Guard service. In neither case do we have clear and convincing evidence that the allegations are true, but in Bush's case there much is more evidence for the press to consider precisely because the story has been brewing for so many years.

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