That 377 tons of high explosives went missing from an Iraqi munitions facility 30 miles south of Baghdad is a legitimate story.
But did it deserve to be the front-page, two-column headline lead in The New York Times? Did it merit being featured on "60 Minutes," 30 hours before Election Day, as CBS News planned? Or were these twin media mastodons colluding as conscious agents of the Kerry campaign?
These are not unfair questions -- for consider:
We now know that the explosives have been missing from Al Qaqaa for 18 months and that this was known by the U.S. government. We now know that the 377 tons represents less than one-tenth of one percent of the munitions U.S. forces have captured or destroyed.
We now know the explosives were probably moved before U.S. troops arrived. For it is hard to believe an organized theft of these explosives, involving hundreds of men and 40 trucks, each hauling 10 tons of high explosives, could have been carried out on Iraqi roads jammed with U.S. military vehicles after the fall of Baghdad.
Yet, thanks to CBS and the Times, Kerry was able, for three days of the last week of the campaign, to make a charge of presidential dereliction of duty that threw Bush off message and on the defensive.
According to Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post, CBS News' Jeff Fager pleaded with the Times' Bill Keller not to publish the story until 36 hours before voting began. Keller balked, saying this "wouldn't give the White House a fair opportunity to respond."
Which seems to be what CBS had in mind.
For the Los Angeles Times cites a CBS source as saying that Fager was "distraught" the story was not held until 30 hours before voting began. The CBS gang was out to finish off a president with an unanswerable charge on the eve of an election.
This is the second time this fall that CBS News and "60 Minutes" have used hyped or bogus stories to sink President Bush.
In September, Dan Rather and "60 Minutes" charged that Bush, while in the Texas Air National Guard, had been insubordinate, had refused orders to take a medical exam and had used influence to avoid being disciplined.
Within hours, it was shown that the "60 Minutes" exclusive was based on criminally fabricated and forged memos. Yet CBS has never retracted its story nor apologized to President Bush.
Nor has CBS explained why it did not tell the public that the memos had been questioned by the family of the officer who had supposedly written them; that CBS got them from a erratic, wacky, anti-Bush zealot, not an "unimpeachable" source as Rather had claimed; and that the ex-lieutenant governor who confessed to Rather he had gotten Bush into the Guard had previously said the opposite under oath.
And why was CBS maniacally pursuing a National Guard story that had been knocking around for a decade, while ignoring the new dynamite charges of the Swift Boat Vets that Kerry had lied about his combat record in Vietnam and colluded with communists? In August, the whole country was talking about the Swift Boat ads.
As Kurtz reports, the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism has now documented a media bias toward Kerry and an animus toward this president.
During the two-week period around the presidential debates, 59 percent of the stories about Bush on CBS, ABC, NBC, PBS's "News Hour," CNN and Fox News, and in The Washington Post and The New York Times were negative, but only 25 percent of the stories about John Kerry. One in three stories about Kerry was positive, but only one in seven about Bush. In the print media, 68 percent of the stories were negative on Bush, but only 26 percent were negative on Kerry.
Fox News was positive on Bush, but CNN's Aaron Brown's made Fox look like the profile of an ambivalent and undecided voter. According to Kurtz, citing the Project, "not a single CNN story was both dominated by and positive for President Bush." Not one.
After Paul Bremer said we did not send enough troops to Iraq, John Roberts, possible successor to Rather, said: "The famously disciplined Bush campaign appeared to trip all over itself trying to clean up the mess. ... A day of contradictory messages is not the way the Bush campaign wanted to go into this important debate."
With folks like Fager doing the choosing, Roberts should have the inside track to the anchor's chair.
In a revealing story, Slate, the Internet magazine, had its writers publicly name the man for whom each intended to vote and tell why. Five Slate writers named Bush, 45 named Kerry, a nine-to-one ratio. A poll of the national press would likely reach the same result.
This election has indeed revealed an "alternative media" of the right. But the national press remains what it has been since the 1960s: the most reliably left-wing voting block this side of Bedford Stuyvesant.