A November 28 New York Times article by reporter Carl Hulse cited a false claim by a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL): that Hastert “expressed his strong respect” for Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA) “while simultaneously differing” with Murtha's call for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. In fact, the two events were not simultaneous. Hastert initially responded to Murtha's proposal on November 17 by accusing Murtha of “prefer[ring] that the United States surrender to the terrorists who would harm innocent Americans.” It was only a week later, on November 23, that Hastert praised Murtha as “a good man” while maintaining that he “disagreed” with Murtha's proposal.
The article marked at least the second time in less than a week that the Times mischaracterized -- or outright ignored -- a prominent Republican's dramatic change in tone toward Murtha, from initial attacks to praise.
Reporting that Hastert objected to Sen. John Kerry's (D-MA) claim that Hastert had labeled Murtha a “coward,” Hulse noted that Hastert had issued a written statement that “said that America 'must not cower' in fighting the war on terror and that Mr. Murtha and other Democrats 'want us to wave the white flag of surrender.' ” Hulse then quoted Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean's claim that Hastert “expressed his strong respect for the Democratic lawmaker while simultaneously differing on Iraq policy” and noted that Hastert “wrote last week” that Murtha is “a good man.”
But by uncritically reporting Bonjean's false assertion that Hastert's praise of Murtha and criticism of Murtha's resolution calling for withdrawal from Iraq were “simultaneous,” Hulse ignored Hastert's abrupt shift in tone in discussing Murtha. In fact, Hastert initially responded to Murtha's resolution with an attack-laden November 17 statement, which was posted by Bonjean to the Speaker of the House's weblog:
I am saddened by the comments made today by Rep. Murtha. It is clear that as Nancy Pelosi's top lieutenant on armed services, Rep. Murtha and Democratic leaders have adopted a policy of cut and run. They would prefer that the United States surrender to the terrorists who would harm innocent Americans. To add insult to injury, this is done while the President is on foreign soil.
Rep. Murtha and other Democrats want us to retreat. They want us to wave the white flag of surrender to the terrorists of the world. It is unfortunate that this is all politics all the time. We need to have a strong consistent policy that will protect our men and women who are fighting to protect us overseas. We must not cower like European nations who are now fighting terrorists on their soil. This is the highest insult to the brave men and women serving overseas.
I have known John Murtha to be a long-term veteran of this institution. He has stood up for our troops and has helped to provide them with the right equipment to do their job. We all saw the same pained faces among Americans when terrorists slammed into the Twin Towers. Did he see the faces the rest of America saw when terrorists plowed into the Pentagon or when the plane that was headed for a Washington target went down in Pennsylvania? I saw the faces that day, and, Mr. Murtha, that was no illusion.
A week later, in a November 23 statement, Hastert softened his rhetoric towards Murtha, emphasizing that he “has the utmost respect” for Murtha even though he “disagreed with the pull out plan he [Murtha] announced last week” :
As you know, last week, we rejected a resolution to withdraw troops from Iraq immediately. It was the right thing to do. I have said all along that I think we need to win in Iraq. We are winning. Progress is being made. The Iraqis now have a constitution and they are about to elect a government with participation by voters from all factions. We've got to stay on the offensive against these terrorists. None of us wants to see this fight occur here on U.S. soil.
But that said, I need everyone to understand that I have known Congressman (John) Murtha a long time. He's a good man. I have the utmost respect for him. In fact, I'm pretty sure he knows that. I disagreed with the pull out plan he announced last week.
Hastert's about-face from his previous attacks on Murtha recall a similar move by the White House, which the Times also ignored. As Media Matters for America has noted, a November 22 Times article quoted Vice President Dick Cheney commending Murtha as “a good man, a marine, a patriot” but omitted any reference to the Bush administration's initial assessment that Murtha was “endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party.”
From the November 28 Times article titled "Hastert Disputes Comments Kerry Made During Political Appeal":
“Dennis Hastert -- the speaker of the House who never served -- accused Jack Murtha of being a coward,” Mr. Kerry said as he listed Republican attacks on Mr. Murtha.
[Kerry spokeswoman Jenny] Backus said that comment was based on news reports and the general tone of an initial statement released by the office of Mr. Hastert, Republican of Illinois. It said that America “must not cower” in fighting the war on terror and that Mr. Murtha and other Democrats “want us to wave the white flag of surrender.”
But Mr. Bonjean noted that Mr. Hastert did not use the term directly about Mr. Murtha and expressed his strong respect for the Democratic lawmaker while simultaneously differing on Iraq policy. In his blog, Mr. Hastert wrote last week: “I need everyone to understand that I have known Congressman Murtha a long time. He's a good man.”