Two candidates, two military records, two standards

Media extensively covers baseless allegations about Kerry's Vietnam service and ignores well-substantiated facts about Bush's service

Both current major-party presidential candidates served their country during Vietnam. Both candidates' service has been questioned.

The similarities end there.

John Kerry, according to every available piece of documentary evidence, including official U.S. Navy records, served bravely and honorably, won five medals (including three Purple Hearts), and saved a crewmate's life. Everybody -- everybody -- who served on Kerry's boats during the incidents that led to his medals agrees that he deserved them and praises his distinguished service.

President George W. Bush, according to the documentary evidence available, apparently didn't bother to show up for duty for a lengthy period in 1972-73 -- a period when, according to USA Today, “commanders in Texas and Alabama say they never saw him report for duty and records show no pay to Bush when he was supposed to be on duty in Alabama.” In contrast with Kerry, who has shipmates who sing his praises, Bush hasn't been able to produce anyone who can credibly say they remember serving with him in the Alabama Guard.

Though much is known about Bush's Guard record -- that he was grounded from flying for failing to take a physical, for example -- some questions linger. Among those identified by USA Today:

Why did Bush, described by some of his fellow officers as a talented and enthusiastic pilot, stop flying fighter jets in the spring of 1972 and fail to take an annual physical exam required of all pilots?

What explains the apparent gap in the president's Guard service in 1972-73, a period when commanders in Texas and Alabama say they never saw him report for duty and records show no pay to Bush when he was supposed to be on duty in Alabama?

Did Bush receive preferential treatment in getting into the Guard and securing a coveted pilot slot despite poor qualifying scores and arrests, but no convictions, for stealing a Christmas wreath and rowdiness at a football game during his college years?


The Associated Press filed a lawsuit this summer requesting copies of Bush's military records stored in a Texas archive on microfilm. It sought information that might explain why Bush did not take his flight physical and whether he showed up for duty in Alabama in the fall of 1972, AP spokesman John Stokes said.

One might think -- since we already know that Bush skipped a required physical, causing him to be grounded, and that records give no indication that he showed up for duty for several months -- that media coverage of questions about the candidates' Vietnam-era service would focus on Bush's record. But that's not what has happened so far during this presidential campaign, according to a Media Matters for America review of media coverage of the candidates. Not only has the media given substantially more attention to baseless charges leveled against Kerry, they have repeatedly held Bush to a lower standard than other candidates.

OVERVIEW of Media Coverage of Questions Surrounding the Candidates' Military Careers:

2004 Media Coverage of the Candidates' Military Service
Media Type Bush/Ala. National Guard Kerry/Swift Boats
All News 752 1,924
U.S. Newspapers and Wires 398 1,440
Methodology: Based on searches of the LexisNexis database conducted on August 25. Totals for “Bush/Ala. National Guard” include all hits in the given LexisNexis source files that return for the search: (George w/2 Bush) and (Alabama w/5 national guard). Totals for “Kerry/Swift Boat Vets” include all hits for the search: Swift Boat Veterans and Kerry

CASE STUDY: Baseless claims that Kerry lied get heavy coverage while media ignores Bush's proven lies

Baseless allegations that Kerry has lied about his military record have gotten heavy media coverage in recent months -- but lies we know that Bush has told about his own military record have gone virtually unreported by the media.

For example, Bush lied during his 1978 congressional campaign, falsely claiming he had served in the Air Force. The Associated Press reported on July 14, 1999:

A pullout ad from The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal of May 4, 1978, shows a huge picture of Bush with a “Bush for Congress” logo on the front. On the back, a synopsis of his career says he served “in the U.S. Air Force and the Texas Air National Guard where he piloted the F-102 aircraft.”

Bush didn't serve in the U.S. Air Force; he served in the National Guard. When confronted with questions about the ad, Bush said, “The facts are I served 600 days in the Air Force,” basing his claim on the assertion that National Guard service and Air Force service are the same thing. But the Associated Press reported that there is, in fact, a difference between the National Guard and the Air Force:

The Air Force says Air National Guard members are considered 'guardsmen on active duty' while receiving pilot training. They get active-duty pay, which is more than their Guard pay, during pilot training. They are not, however, counted as members of the overall active-duty force.

By claiming to have been in the Air Force, Bush may have been trying to create the impression that he was in -- or could have been sent to -- Vietnam. But when he had the opportunity to volunteer for “overseas” duty, Bush refused, as page 22 of these Bush military records (pdf) reveals. Indeed, Bush once famously explained why he joined the National Guard: “I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes.”

MMFA can find only one media mention on LexisNexis since January of this obvious Bush lie about the Air Force: an article on in February.

Another example of a clear-cut Bush lie about his military record that has gone almost completely unnoticed by the media this year is a false claim he made in his autobiography about how long he flew jets for the Guard. The Boston Globe reported: “Bush himself, in his 1999 autobiography, A Charge to Keep, recounts the thrills of his pilot training, which he completed in June 1970. 'I continued flying with my unit for the next several years,' the governor wrote.”

But, as USA Today reported, Bush “stop[ped] flying fighter jets in the spring of 1972” -- less than two years after completing his pilot training. Not only did Bush stop flying in the spring of 1972, he was grounded from flying in August 1972, after refusing to take a required physical.

Clearly, Bush lied in his autobiography when he said he “continued flying with” his unit for “the next several years.” He doesn't seem to have done so for even two years, much less “several.”

But the media has ignored this clear lie that George W. Bush told in order to advance a political campaign. A search of the LexisNexis database yields only seven hits for 2004 -- three of which are versions of an Eric Alterman column that appeared in multiple newspapers, and one of which is a letter to the editor.

CASE STUDY on the media's double standard: Wesley Clark got negative coverage for remarks made at his campaign event; Bush has escaped similar scrutiny

In January, during the Democratic primaries, filmmaker Michael Moore, appearing at a rally for then-presidential candidate Ret. General Wesley Clark, called Bush a “deserter,” referring to Bush's apparent failure to report for duty in Alabama. A firestorm quickly developed, and Clark was widely condemned in the media for not challenging Moore's comment. During a Democratic primary debate, moderator and ABC News anchor Peter Jennings even suggested that Clark's failure to contradict Moore was an example of poor “ethical behavior.”

Jennings, to Wesley Clark during the January 22 Democratic debate in New Hampshire:

JENNINGS: General Clark, a lot of people say they don't know you well, so this is really a simple question about knowing a man by his friends. The other day, you had a rally here and one of the men who stood up to endorse you was the controversial filmmaker Michael Moore. You said you were delighted with him. At one point, Mr. Moore said in front of you that President [George W.] Bush, he was saying he'd like to see a debate between you, the General [Clark], and President [George W.] Bush, who he called a deserter. Now, that's a reckless charge not supported by the facts. And I was curious to know why you didn't contradict him and whether or not you think it was -- would have been a better example of ethical behavior to have done so?

Jennings flatly declared Moore's allegation “reckless” and “not supported by the facts,” despite the fact that, as noted earlier, there is no evidence that Bush showed up for duty when he was supposed to. And Jennings wasn't alone in criticizing Clark; the condemnation of Clark's decision not to contradict Moore's comments was so great, the event has been blamed for Clark's defeat in the primaries. For example, on the June 30 edition of FOX News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, host Bill O'Reilly said:

O'REILLY: Kerry has a problem, and we discussed this last night. I don't know whether you saw The Factor last night. But he can't ally himself with Michael Moore, because you saw what happened to Wesley Clark, when Wesley Clark wouldn't even repudiate Moore. And that blew Clark right out of the race. He can't partner up with Moore, because as you said, there are a lot of independents who don't like this kind of stuff. It's disrespectful, is what it is.

A search of the “All News” category on LexisNexis finds 293 articles that mention Clark, Moore, and the “deserter” comment.

Fast-forward to August: At a Bush campaign event in Beaverton, Oregon, two Bush supporters attacked John Kerry's military record -- one even suggesting Kerry received his Purple Hearts for “self-inflicted scratches” -- in questions to Bush. Bush did not denounce the comments, or disagree in any way. Instead, he thanked the supporters for their comments.

Surely, then, the media has taken Bush to task the way they took Clark to task? And perhaps even more harshly, since there is no evidence that John Kerry's military record is anything less than exemplary, while there is considerable evidence that Bush didn't show up for duty when he was supposed to?

Well, not quite: The media has ignored the Bush event and ignored Bush's tacit endorsement of the attacks on Kerry's military record made in his presence (which, by the way, recalled the 2000 Republican primaries, when, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Bush stood on a stage and listened as a supporter accused McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, of turning his back on veterans”).

A LexisNexis search shows only six mentions of the Beaverton incidents: two Washington Post articles, two articles, a column by Gene Lyons in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and a Scripps Howard article. The Bush event is perfectly analogous to the Clark/Moore event (except that Moore had considerably more evidence to support his position than did the questioners at the Bush event) -- and yet the news media, which covered the Clark/Moore event so thoroughly, has ignored the Bush event.

Below are the two exchanges that occurred during an August 13 Bush “Town Hall” event in Beaverton, Oregon:

Q: Mr. President, Mr. Kerry seems to have a lot of trouble remembering dates -- when and if he was in Cambodia; who was president -- Nixon or Johnson -- when he was assigned to Vietnam; what bills in Congress he worked for and when; cannot remember if he campaigned in Oregon or California for George McGovern. Your last opponent you exposed with fuzzy math. It's time to expose John Kerry with fuzzy memory.


BUSH: You got a question?

Q: I, too, want to say God bless you, Mr. Bush. My husband and my twins and I pray for you daily, as do many homeschoolers.


Thank you for recognizing homeschoolers.

BUSH: You bet. Thanks.


Q: On behalf of Vietnam veterans -- and I served six tours over there -- we do support the president. I only have one concern, and that's on the Purple Heart, and that is, is that there are over 200,000 Vietnam vets that died from Agent Orange and were never -- no Purple Heart has ever been awarded to a Vietnam veteran because of Agent Orange because it's never been changed in the regulations. Yet, we've got a candidate for president out here with two self-inflicted scratches, and I take that as an insult.


BUSH: Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you for your service. Six tours? Whew. That's a lot of tours. Let's see, who've we got here? You got a question?