In light of the relentless media coverage of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth [sic] and their thinly sourced, consistently contradicted-by-official-documents attacks on Senator John Kerry (D-MA) -- most notably in the new book Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry -- it's worth revisiting how the media covered another controversial book with a controversial author.
In 1999, St. Martin's Press published a book by author James H. Hatfield called Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President. The book, which contained allegations that then-candidate George W. Bush had used cocaine in the 1970s, received barely any media coverage -- until Hatfield's own past came into question, at which point Hatfield, not the allegations in his book, became the media's primary discussion topic during the story's short life.
Fortunate Son, like Unfit for Command, contained false and unverifiable claims about a presidential candidate. Fortunate Son's author, like Unfit for Command's co-authors John E. O'Neill and Jerome R. Corsi, had serious credibility problems.
While the media virtually ignored Fortunate Son (other than to condemn the book and its author), the Bush campaign was quick to threaten legal action, and many in the media suggested the press had a responsibility to either ignore the book altogether or to debunk its claims. When St. Martin's eventually suspended publication and recalled the book, the Bush campaign lauded the decision as “the right thing to do.”
In stark contrast with the treatment given Fortunate Son, the media is heavily covering Swift Boat Vets' allegations. New polling by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey found that more than half of the country has “heard about or seen” the Swift Boat Vets TV ad. “The influence of this ad is a function not of paid exposure but of the ad's treatment in free media,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the survey and of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, explained. “The advertisement has received extensive coverage, particularly on conservative talk radio and cable news channels and has been the subject of some attention in broadcast news as well.”
Media ignored Fortunate Son before allegations about Hatfield's past emerged, then focused on Hatfield (not on Bush); media and publishers denounced book
On October 22, 1999, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote of media coverage of Fortunate Son:
Most major newspapers initially ignored the Hatfield book, although the New York Post and Washington Times ran brief stories about it. On Wednesday, the Boston Globe, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Constitution and Associated Press, among others, ran articles or items about the book after former president George Bush issued a statement denouncing the charges as “mindless garbage” and a “vicious lie.” He denied ever intervening with a judge on the younger Bush's behalf, saying Hatfield “has insulted our son's character and my character and I resent it.”
Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, criticized the handling of the story. “The problem is that mainstream, distinguished publishers aren't checking these things,” he said. “They aren't in the business of fact-checking.” As for newspapers, “you wind up publishing a story because someone denies it, which strikes me as a pretty shabby ethic.”
Also on October 22, 1999, The New York Times noted that it had been aware of the allegations -- but the paper chose not to publish the allegations, because it couldn't corroborate them:
Reporters for The New York Times, which received an advance copy of Mr. Hatfield's book last week, spent several days looking for evidence that might corroborate his account. But they did not find any, and the newspaper did not publish anything about the claim.
It wasn't just major newspapers that ignored Fortunate Son (at least until Hatfield's background became a story). The broadcast and cable news networks almost completely ignored the book. A Nexis search yields only one result for “Fortunate Son” before Hatfield's background emerged: Geraldo Rivera mentioned it on CNBC's Rivera Live on October 19, 1999 -- and quoted both Bushes denouncing the book.
The first time Fortunate Son was mentioned on CNN was during the October 22, 1999, edition of Inside Politics, during which CNN's Reliable Sources host, Howard Kurtz, said:
[T]he book's thinly supported allegation of a cocaine arrest in Bush's past has been trumped by an even bigger story about the book's author. ... That lack of substantiation, plus a total denial from the Bush camp, led most news organizations to decide against running the story. But it was all over the Internet -- on “The Drudge Report” and in Salon magazine. Salon says the Internet's role is to put out controversial information and let readers make up their own minds.
Likewise, the first mention of Fortunate Son on FOX News Channel focused on Hatfield and involved roundtable participants suggesting the media should ignore the book. On the October 21, 1999, edition of FOX Special Report With Brit Hume, Hume led off the discussion by saying:
I can't resist starting with this sort of delicious story about the author, J.H. Hatfield, who wrote this book about George W. Bush called Fortunate Son, which alleged that there'd been this drug bust in his past that he had covered up with a little help from his father. And of course, it now turns out that this chap, J.H. Hatfield, is the same J.H. Hatfield who did a stretch in the big house for -- for -- for trying to hire somebody to kill his boss.
Bill Sammon of The Washington Times responded to Hume by criticizing the “thinly sourced” allegations:
If this guy is truly the person who did some time and is lying about it, how are we supposed to possibly believe this thinly sourced story that George Bush did time? I mean, it just -- it -- it -- I think it's a lesson in post-Monica [Lewinsky] rules of journalism. We're all running with this thing, and it was thinly sourced to begin with. Now we're all running around ... probably looking at the publisher for letting him get -- get this thing through. But I think the newspapers have some responsibility here, too, for repeating it.
Hume suggested the question for the media was whether to debunk the allegations or ignore them entirely:
[I]t raises the question of whether something like this gets out there, whether it's better to address it and, as has happened in the case here, I think, pretty firmly knock it down, or -- or whether to let it -- or whether to ignore it and let it fester.
Roundtable participant Mara Liasson of National Public Radio chimed in to suggest that the allegations should have been ignored:
Well, you know, or ignore it because, you know, a lot of ways that these things get legs is when they're repeated in the mainstream media. ... Repeated -- repeated and discussed and sometimes shot down, but it gets into the bloodstream.
And Roll Call's Morton M. Kondracke concluded that the “obligation” of the media is to check the story out before reporting it:
You know, now, the -- it seems to me that the obligation of a -- of a news medium, a major news medium, is not to repeat the story but to check it out first and then, if it's gaining some currency on the fringes -- you know, on the Internet or something like that or gossip or if it's in the air -- then jump in and say, “Hey, we've proved that this story is not -- is not true,” rather than, you know, recycling it or ... or repeating it ... because it's -- it's in the air.
Meanwhile, publications such as The New York Observer, Salon.com, and Slate.com printed articles critical of the book and of Hatfield's credibility. Slate.com editor Jacob Weisberg wrote, "Should we believe this story? I don't think so. ... Anyone with a nose for cooked quotes should be able to detect the distinct odor of journalistic jambalaya coming from Hatfield's book."
The New York Observer, noting that the “stench” of Fortunate Son is “sure to have a reach,” quoted Simon & Schuster publisher David Rosenthal: “This sort of thing is not good for newspapers, publishers, books. ... Over many years, I've edited Hunter S. Thompson, whose motto has long been, If you call somebody a pigf*****, you damn well better be able to produce the pig.” [asterisks inserted by MMFA]
Bush campaign denied allegations in book; suggested lawsuit; praised decision to pull book
George W. Bush, his father, and his campaign surrogates criticized the book as “mindless garbage” and “science fiction” :
George W. Bush said, “It's totally ridiculous. ... It's not true ... and I would hope responsible journalists ... would not respond to science fiction.” [Boston Herald, 10/20/99 (ellipsis in original)]
George H.W. Bush called the book “mindless garbage.” According to The Washington Post, "'The report is a vicious lie,' the former president said in a statement. He said it was just such 'nasty, groundless' attacks that dissuade many good people from entering politics. ... [T]he former president said ... 'The author can stand by his anonymous sources all he wants, but they are not telling the truth. He has insulted our son's character and my character and I resent it.' The senior Bush said he was proud that his son 'is willing and is strong enough to take the heat, even in the face of this kind of mindless garbage.'" [10/20/99]
Bush campaign spokesperson Mindy Tucker said, “This guy should have stuck with writing science fiction. ... He's obviously trying to sell books with something absolutely untrue.” [Salon.com, 10/18/99]
The Bush camp didn't merely denounce the book; it suggested that a lawsuit or other effort to stop the book might be forthcoming. The New York Post reported on October 23, 1999:
George W. Bush is mulling legal action against the discredited author and the publisher of a controversial new book that claims the GOP front-runner was busted on cocaine charges and used political connections to have the record expunged.
“Attorneys are looking into the matter,” said Scott McClellan, a campaign spokesman for Bush.
“They should recall it [the book] immediately, and they should be ashamed they published it in the first place.”
On October 23, 1999, the Associated Press also reported that the Bush camp was considering legal action -- not because of the content of the book but because of the author's background:
The unauthorized biographer of GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush was hoping for a best seller. He may end up with a libel lawsuit. His publisher already has recalled the book and suspended further sales, shipment and promotion. ... By Friday afternoon, publisher St. Martin's Press had recalled all 70,000 copies of the book -- “Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President” -- from stores nationwide. The revelation [about Hatfield's past], first reported in The Dallas Morning News, had the Bush campaign's legal staff reviewing the work for possible libel implications.
“It's obvious (the book) was not checked,” Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said Friday. Bush had previously denounced the book as “science fiction.”
According to an article in the Houston Chronicle on October 23, 1999, the Bush campaign's lawsuit threats were successful:
The publisher of a controversial and inaccurate biography of Gov. George W. Bush recalled the 70,000 copies that had been sent to wholesalers and bookstores. The recall was made after St. Martin's Press, worried that Bush might sue, confirmed that the author had served a prison sentence for attempted murder.
Bush, campaigning in New Hampshire, said St. Martin's Press should recall the book. “Unfortunately, there are some people in the political process who think it is OK to make stuff up,” he said. “Most people aren't going to buy all this garbage and rumors.”
In light of the criticism of the book's accuracy and the author's credibility, St. Martin's suspended publication of Fortunate Son and recalled copies already printed. In the October 22, 1999, edition of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sally Richardson of St. Martin's explained, “Since Mr. Hatfield's credibility has been called into serious question, we feel compelled to suspend publication.” In December 1999, Texas Monthly reported, “St. Martin's Press recalled the book on October 21 amid questions about Hatfield's credibility and the elder George Bush's threat of a lawsuit.”
Bush's campaign aides applauded the decision to pull the book: “We think it was a responsible decision and the right thing to do,” Tucker was quoted in the October 22, 1999, edition of The Dallas Morning News. The same day, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted Bush campaign spokesperson (and current White House press secretary) McClellan also saying that pulling the book was “the right thing to do.”