Wash. Post gave prominent play to right-wing Murtha smear; ignored more credible issue raised by progressive groups

An article in The Washington Post played up thinly sourced, years-old allegations promoted by conservative activists, but the Post has dismissed an issue of concern to progressives.

In its January 14 edition, The Washington Post gave prominent coverage to a thinly sourced conservative attack on Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA), who has emerged as a prominent critic of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war. The Post article recounted allegations contained in a January 13 Cybercast News Service (CNS, formerly Conservative News Service) article that questioned Murtha's military record and the circumstances surrounding his two Purple Hearts. In repeating the CNS assault on Murtha's service, the Post article -- written by Post media critic Howard Kurtz and staff writer Shailagh Murray -- downplayed the partisan nature of the “news” organization, ignored serious questions about its credibility, and failed to explain how poorly sourced the CNS article was.

The Post's description of CNS read in full:

Cybercast is part of the conservative Media Research Center, run by L. Brent Bozell III, who accused some in the media of ignoring the Swift Boat charges, but [CNS editor in chief David] Thibault said it operates independently. He said the unit, formerly called the Conservative News Service, averages 110,000 readers, mainly conservative, and provides material for other Web sites such as GOPUSA. “We won't run anything against anybody if we don't have the goods,” he said.

In order to give readers a more complete picture of CNS, The Post might have mentioned that:

  • Thibault has previously worked for the Republican National Committee and for then-Rep. Judd Gregg (R-NH). Gregg is now a senator.
  • Marc Morano, the lead writer of the CNS attack on Murtha, was “a reporter and producer for the Rush Limbaugh Television Show from 1992 to 1996,” according to the CNS website, and worked for American Investigator, a cable television program hosted by conservative activist Paul Weyrich and produced by Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation.

    In 1996, Morano secretly filmed an AIDS fund-raiser on behalf of the Family Research Council, then wrote an article claiming that the fund-raiser featured “lewd dancing, nudity, illicit sex and evidence of illegal drugs,” according to a May 14, 1996, Associated Press article. The Washington Times reported on May 15, 1996, that it was unable to substantiate some of Morano's claims, and then-Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-WI), a sponsor of the fund-raiser, blasted Morano's reporting in a statement on the floor of the House. Gunderson noted that Morano “never once tried to interview me or any of the event's sponsors. Nor did he talk to any of the security personnel, nor the responsible authorities at the Department of Commerce [where the event was held]. Throughout his entire story, not one source is ever identified or quoted. ... [H]ate and prejudice are the motives by which Mr. Morano and Mr. [Armstrong] Williams [who wrote a column based on Morano's report] sought to totally misrepresent the fund-raising events and their purpose.”

  • CNS touts on its website words of praise from Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy, the convicted felon and radio host who memorably urged listeners to shoot federal agents in the head in order to “kill the sons of bitches” and who has said listening to Hitler on the radio “made me feel a strength inside I had never known before.”

Nor did the Post article adequately explain a serious flaw with the CNS article. Journalist Murray Waas explained how thinly sourced the CNS article is:

If I understand this correctly, regarding the purported allegations by the late Rep. [John] Saylor [R-PA] that Rep. Murtha did not deserve his Purple Hearts, the Washington Post is relying on the reporting of the Cyercast [sic] News Service, which is in turn is relying on comments made years ago by Harry Fox, who is in turn is quoting the late Congressman Saylor-- who died all the way back in 1973. The Post should have done a much better job of making this clear in their story -- in my humble opinion-- if they should have even published a story at all.

The statements by Fox -- who lost to Murtha in the 1974 election to succeed Saylor -- were taken from previous media accounts, and he offered no new quotes; as the CNS article stated, “the health of the 81-year-old was too poor to allow him to communicate.” Two other people quoted in the article, Don Bailey and William Choby, also lost elections to Murtha.

But rather than explaining to readers the background of the “news” organization behind the attacks on Murtha, or exploring the quality -- or lack thereof -- of the report itself, the Post's media critic did little more than recount the allegations themselves. As a result, this thinly sourced recitation of years-old criticism traveled from the website of a conservative activist organization to the pages of the Washington Post -- in less than 24 hours, and with little explanation of the credibility of the story or the source.

While the Post has been lightning-quick to bring attention to dubious claims made by conservative organizations, it has completely ignored a more timely and better-sourced issue raised by progressive organizations.

The same day the CNS attack on Murtha appeared online, the liberal organization Democrats.com highlighted the results of a poll conducted by Zogby International:

By a margin of 52% to 43%, Americans want Congress to consider impeaching President Bush if he wiretapped American citizens without a judge's approval, according to a new poll commissioned by AfterDowningStreet.org, a grassroots coalition that supports a Congressional investigation of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

The poll was conducted by Zogby International, the highly-regarded non-partisan polling company. The poll interviewed 1,216 U.S. adults from January 9-12.

The poll found that 52% agreed with the statement:

“If President Bush wiretapped American citizens without the approval of a judge, do you agree or disagree that Congress should consider holding him accountable through impeachment.”

43% disagreed, and 6% said they didn't know or declined to answer. The poll has a +/- 2.9% margin of error.

The Post has yet to report the results of this poll.

Media Matters for America has previously noted that the Post has ignored (other than a mention in Dan Froomkin's online-only column) the results of a June Zogby poll that found that 53 percent of Americans thought that Congress should consider impeachment "[i]f President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq." Media Matters has detailed Post polling director Richard Morin's dubious explanation that the paper does not conduct its own polling on the topic because “it is not a serious option or a topic of considered discussion.”

Of course, it's hard for impeachment to be a “topic of considered discussion” if the Post ignores that such discussion is taking place. The possibility of impeachment has recently been raised by conservative constitutional scholar Bruce Fein and American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norman Ornstein -- though the Post hasn't reported those comments. The Post's failure to note that Fein has described Bush's handling of domestic spying by the National Security Agency as “an impeachable offense” is particularly glaring, as Fein has been quoted in the Post three times since making that comment, including once in a story about the domestic spying.

In light of the Post's speedy recitation of thinly sourced conservative criticism of Murtha, readers are left to wonder how the paper decides what is worthy of coverage. Poorly sourced, years-old allegations about Murtha by people who have been his political opponents are newsworthy, but new polls demonstrating surprising public support for congressional impeachment hearings are not?