16 February 2004

Forensic journalism on Bush's lost Guard duty files

Atrios points to an excellent post by Calpundit today about the ''files in a wastebasket'' strand of the Bush National Guard service story.
[Former Lt. Col.] Burkett's friend and fellow guardsman, George Conn, led him to the base museum, which was run by General Scribner. Once there, Burkett saw a trashcan sitting on a table, and when he looked in he saw 20 to 40 pages of documents with George Bush's name on them.
If this is true, the story is major league Washington scandal. You know the rules: revealation of the cover-up is always more damaging than the original issue would have been.

Beyond the implications of the story itself, Calpundit's article is worth your time for his walk through the supporting research required in covering it.

Unlike the basic National Guard story, which has been fuelled largely by odd discrepencies in the documentary evidence, there is no documentary evidence regarding Burkett's story. We just have his word for it, and needless to say, all the people he has accused of cleaning up Bush's records vigorously deny it.

To judge the truth of Burkett's story, then, all we can do is ask certain questions: Is Burkett's story internally consistent? Has it stayed consistent over time? Do other people corroborate it? Does Burkett have a track record of telling the truth? Does he have any axes to grind?

The short answer is that I think Burkett is probably telling the truth. The long answer is -- well, long.

Calpundit gives us the long answer, answering each of the questions he asked in turn, explaining why he thinks Burkett is credible but making clear what room there is for doubt. It's good journalism.
It's an example of the kind of forensic journalism practiced routinely by mainstream reporters. I see a little more mockery of journalists than I'd like in the blogosphere, and I think a lot of it is because too many people don't realize how much reporting and how much judgment are behind the small snippets of writing that end up on newsprint or on the air.
That's one of the nice things about blogs: if I feel like spending a lot of time on a single topic I can do it, and if I feel like posting all the detailed background information I can do that too. I hope you found it an interesting exercise.

This post also points to something important about how things work in American journalism now. I think that the Bush administration is hoping to dodge the bullet on the whole Guard duty story (as well as other potential scandals like the Valerie Plame story) by counting on scandal fatigue from the Clinton years. Journalists were taken for a ride in the '90s by the not-so-vast right-wing conspiracy, spilled a lot of ink -- and burned a lot of credibillity -- covering countless ''scandals'' with no substance. My favourite example is Whitewater, a corruption ''scandal'' in which the Clintons actually lost money. David Brock's strange memoir Blinded by the Right is most interesting for its description, from the inside, of how sloppy journalistic practices prevailed within the right's smear machine.

After following these stories for years, mainstream journalists have learned the wrong lesson, and now easily dismiss potential scandals. Calpundit demonstrates what they should have done during the Clinton era, and what they should do now.

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