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Out of balance

AJC's King mistakes journalism for Drudge Report


Meet Matt Drudge, Internet rumormonger. Claim to fame: Broke the Monica Lewinsky story. Canned by Fox News Channel for misrepresenting a fetus. Boasts that 20 percent of his stories are false. Also boasts that he earns "seven digits."

Meet Walter V. Robinson, the Boston Globe's investigative editor. Claim to fame: Led the team that won last year's Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for investigation of the Catholic Church sex scandal. Has covered everything from the Middle East to Nazi artwork looting. Army intelligence officer in Vietnam.

In his Feb. 21 column, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Public Editor Mike King managed to equate the work of these two guys. Not by name, mind you, but by pretending their work was of similar credibility.

At the same time, King, whose Saturday column purports to serve as a watchdog for readers, passed up a great opportunity to raise serious questions about his own newspaper's reporting of the George W. Bush/National Guard controversy.

First some background: On Feb. 12, Drudge ran a baseless Web story that John Kerry had an affair with an intern. Four days later, the "intern" denied it, noting she hadn't even been an intern for Kerry. Her parents said the affair never happened and endorsed Kerry. Sean Hannity, Neal Boortz and other talk-radio partisans continue to peddle the defamatory rumor.

Robinson broke his unrelated Bush/National Guard story in May 2000. His definitive account was sourced to four of Bush's superior officers, 160 pages of military records, and other documents and interviews.

"In his final 18 months of military service in 1972 and 1973, Bush did not fly at all," Robinson concluded in a Globe article that's held up well to the release last month of some of the president's service records. "And for much of that time, Bush was all but unaccounted for."

Bush's service got little play in the 2000 campaign. But it's received more scrutiny this year, partly in contrast to Kerry's war record and partly because Bush is now a wartime president. Plus, there were countless lingering questions: Did favoritism help Bush get into the Guard? And why did he break precedent by refusing to release his service records?

Pressed by the coverage, the White House released Bush's pay records just before Valentine's Day. That raised new questions: Why do the dates contradict attendance records? Was Bush paid for drills he didn't attend?

Around the same time, the president's people began peddling a Roswell resident to reporters. A retired officer who served in Bush's Alabama unit, John B. Calhoun said he'd hung out with Bush during drills. Because attendance records, other guardsmen and even records released by the White House contradicted Calhoun's timeline, most major publications played his story with a dose of salt. Time noted the contradictions upon introducing him. The Globe's Robinson relegated Calhoun last month to his final paragraph.

Only one major paper led its coverage that weekend with Calhoun's recollections. Aglow over the local angle, the AJC dedicated a front-page story, by Dave Hirschman and Moni Basu, to the retired officer. The story doused him with singular authority. Far down, the article noted the record disparity, and quoted the unit's commander, retired Brig. Gen. William Turnipseed, doubting his own memory. But it failed to acknowledge that Turnipseed and other guardsmen had said for years that if Bush had attended drills, they'd have seen him -- and they didn't.

The paper leapt at the story's novelty. For years, Bush's unit mates said they didn't see him. Now, here was a Roswell man who claimed the reverse -- the "man-bites-dog" angle. What a great story! And with a local peg!

King might have found his own great story by examining how the AJC's staff pieced the Calhoun article together, and by asking whether the daily obscured a fuller view of the controversy by handling Calhoun with little skepticism.

While he was at it, King could have explored why other media were clearer about a detail that would have helped AJC readers evaluate Calhoun's perspective: Other papers noted that the White House or "a Republican close to Bush" was making him available to reporters. With a little digging of his own, King might have learned -- as I did in an interview with Calhoun -- that he's a longtime "Goldwater Republican" who took under his wing the young son of a GOP congressman who came to Alabama to work for a Republican Senate candidate. Calhoun says that earlier this year, he tried to pitch his story to talk-radio host Hannity, and then worked it through the state Republican Party.

This isn't to question Calhoun's truthfulness. But surely bias and partisanship could play games with 31-year-old memories, and surely readers would be better informed if they knew of such biases.

In our conversation, Calhoun already was backing away from his statement to the AJC that he'd hung out with Bush in May and June 1972. Now, he says, it may just have been July through October. "I can't say he was there six months, but I can say he was there for four months," Calhoun said.

As Robinson told me: "When you're looking that far back, the records are important. They have better memories."

As if they worked at a secretive bureaucracy, editors at the AJC whom I asked about the Calhoun story referred me to an official spokesman who professed to know nothing about it: Mike King!

Fine, then. I figured I could ask King about the column he did write -- the one that lumped real investigative journalism, like Robinson's work, with Drudge's defamatory rumor.

King is a former AJC metro editor given the not-so-popular task of critiquing his newsroom colleagues. Unlike many major dailies, however, the AJC has failed to ensure that he's an independent "ombudsman." So his column takes a superficial, gee-whiz tone rather than substantive criticism.

Feb. 21 was an example. Under the headline "Rumors from Web sites don't belong in print," he claimed the National Guard controversy was "fueled by rapid fire e-mail alerts, Web reports and bloggings"; that "the Internet sites of those who hate Bush ... continue to claim he can't prove he served as required"; and that the story will remain in play because "there are bloggers out there stoking the fire."

Wait a second: What planet is this guy living on? Nowadays, websites and bloggers weigh in on just about every controversy. But Time, the Washington Post, the Associated Press and the Boston Globe are hardly "bloggers out there stoking the fire."

Asked for an example of "bloggers" advancing the Guard story, King couldn't name one. I offered to wait for him to think about it. "I don't keep [e-mail records] that far back," he snapped.

Then, King raised a wholly different argument: "What I was complaining about and was concerned about was that the [Guard] story was generating a lot of steam and in my view, we [the mainstream media] were wasting a lot of time on it."

Of course, that's more a personal opinion than a critique based on journalistic principle. And it's specious. Candidates' military records are obviously a legitimate issue, especially in an election revolving around war, patriotism and character.

King's fallback to simple bias surprised me. I thought he'd say he was showing balance by presenting one conservative example and a liberal one. That version of "balance" has its shortcomings, because sometimes the truth is that one side is wrong and the other is right. But King insists it wasn't balance that caused him to falsely characterize the Guard story's evolution, anyway.

I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt by not believing him. Otherwise, I'd think he was surreptitiously pushing his own personal or political agenda under the guise of a media column. For the sake of the AJC's reputation, I hope that wasn't his motivation.

Ken Edelstein, who wears his "balance" on his sleeve, is Creative Loafing's editor. He can be reached at ken.edelstein@creative Eliot Stein helped with research.

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