The controversy over Sinclair Media's planned "late hit" on John Kerry has petered out. The third-tier media company's special fizzled rather than exploded. They showed a few minutes of the anti-Kerry film, "Stolen Honor," and a few minutes of a pro-Kerry documentary, and the whole thing disappeared without a ripple. Meanwhile, more powerful and influential media organizations have been conspiring to deliver cheap shots against Bush at the last minute in order to influence the election. But you can be sure that the graybeards of the mainstream media will do little but stiffly salute what they believe to be great journalism.
On Monday, the New York Times ran a blockbuster headline - "Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished From Site in Iraq" - and an accompanying article that started strong but that disintegrated like an old sweater by the end, raising a raft of questions that cannot possibly be answered with a week left to the campaign. But all John Kerry needed was the headline and maybe the first few paragraphs to head out on the stump denouncing Bush's "incompetence."
It's hard to shake the impression that the Times was drafting talking points for the man they've endorsed for president. For example, in recent weeks the Times Magazine ran a glowing cover story profile - or at least it was intended to be glowing - of Kerry and a tawdry piece of agitprop against Bush written by Ron Suskind. The gist of the first was that Kerry is Mr. Thoughtful. The gist of the second was that George W. Bush is a religious zealot who'd nuke Canada if Pat Robertson told him the bible says he should.
That's just a tiny sliver of the history that makes it very hard to take the Times' reporting at face value. In the missing-explosives story, you have to wade through a sea of words to learn that the explosives the Bush administration allegedly lost might have been missing before American troops even reached the site. Later in the day, NBC News supported that possibility. Replace "high explosives" with "priceless art" and "weapons depot" with "Baghdad Museum" and you get a feel for the games they're playing.
If you don't understand what I'm getting at, recall that the Times and the rest of the press insisted that the Baghdad Museum was ransacked under the unwatchful eye of the Americans who wouldn't protect the priceless antiquities but would guard the oil ministry. The only problem, it later turned out, was that the Museum was not looted because of American negligence after Saddam was toppled, it was plundered by Iraqi officials while Saddam was in office. Similarly, long before Saddam was toppled, he'd distributed weapons caches and piles of money throughout the country to supply his insurgency.
Now, the explosives story is entirely legitimate, and I don't begrudge the Times covering it. But rushing it out days before an election puts a special burden on them. It's definitely troubling and unfortunate that roughly 380 tons of particularly dangerous high explosives are missing. But, according to the Duelfer report, 10,000 sites have been reviewed and cleared of weapons since the war. Roughly 240,000 tons of explosives have been destroyed and 160,000 tons have been stockpiled and marked for destruction. The context matters.
But the story wasn't intended to shed light so much as to apply heat - to George W. Bush.
And the Times isn't alone. The CBS program "60 Minutes" was planning to do a similar piece this Sunday - with the same sources - less than 48 hours before the election. CBS's eagerness to tackle Bush before he reaches the end zone was fairly well exposed when Dan Rather ran with those forged documents, jumping journalistic safeguards like O.J. Simpson in the old Hertz commercials, in order to get on air.
Night after night and day after day, I see on the news or read in the papers that John Kerry says Bush has "banned" embryonic stem cell research. He hasn't. He legalized it for the first time. He barred the government - and only the government - from conducting one specific kind of stem cell research that requires cloning human embryos. I hear Kerry say that 1 million blacks were disenfranchised in 2000. He's making that up. The Duelfer Report offered a very mixed and complex picture of the situation in Iraq before the war, bolstering many of the administration's arguments, including the fact that Saddam was determined to wait out the eroding sanctions regime and re-arm. And - oh, yeah - he was bribing all the countries Kerry wants in his grand coalition. The press uniformly misreported the report as a complete repudiation of Bush policy. The Washington Post's October 7 headline blared a quote from Duelfer: "We were almost all wrong."
The only problem: Duelfer never said that. That quote came from Duelfer's predecessor and was made nearly ten months earlier.
But by all means, let's gnash our teeth and pull our hair in outrage over Sinclair Media's attempt to influence the election with "distortions."