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Between the end of the Republican National Convention and Election Day, the Houston Chronicle spent roughly 50,000 words on President George W. Bush and his campaign for re-election. Perhaps most impressive, one of its own columnists had major news to break on the race.
He just didn't, umm, break it to the Chronicle.
Russ Baker, a New York-based freelance journalist and contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review, had been circling the reporting waters around President Bush for several months, dialing up hundreds of possible sources for material on the commander in chief.
"I just didn't think we really knew enough about who he was," Baker states plainly by phone. One of the calls he placed hit the jackpot. It was to Houston Chronicle sports columnist Mickey Herskowitz. Herskowitz had co-authored a number of memoirs with major figures. The subjects ranged from Gene Autry to Nolan Ryan to Ronald Reagan's main spin man, Michael Deaver.
Of particular interest to Baker, Herskowitz had been tapped in 1999 to help write Bush's autobiography, later titled A Charge to Keep, and he met extensively at the time with the then-governor of Texas and presidential hopeful. Herskowitz was, however, ultimately replaced on the project by former Bush communications director Karen Hughes.
"I didn't know what he was going to tell me," says Baker. "Though I certainly knew he'd been pulled off the book and I thought he might have some interesting things to say about that." Roughly one month ago, Baker says, they met for lunch in Houston and he later tape-recorded a second interview by phone. The gems that emerged from their conversations had Baker believing that he'd stumbled upon a "self-scoop" -- one that might even affect the election.
According to Baker's report, Herskowitz said that Bush felt frustrated with his image as an "underachiever" compared to his father, that he had "failed" to complete his National Guard requirement during the Vietnam War and that his private business efforts had been "floundering."
Perhaps most consequential: Herskowitz said that Bush had Iraq on his "to do" list as early as 1999. "[Bush] said, 'If I have a chance to invade if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it,' " Baker writes, adding later that the ellipses were for a pause and not words omitted.
An exclusive -- possibly explosive -- set of claims from a trusted Bush source? Surely one of the major news outlets from the often-sneered-at "liberal media elite" would jump at the chance to gore Bush. But not one would bite, says Baker. He wound up posting it on October 27 on the Guerrilla News Network Web site.
"The story would have been out a lot sooner if major media organizations hadn't been so reticent to produce important new revelations in the last month of a campaign," complains Baker. He refused to divulge the names of specific publications that balked but says they worried about being "tarred" as having it in for Bush, with some drawing a direct line to the scandal surrounding CBS and the bogus documents on Bush's National Guard service.
"In my conversations with all kinds of news organizations since then, they've all indicated to me that the Dan Rather affair had put them on the defensive," says Baker. (One small, if tortured, bit of irony is that Herskowitz helped Rather write two of his books.) Baker also says, "It's one thing if I had been sitting on it for six months, but I wasn't. As soon as I could, I wrote it up."
Garth Jowett, a communication professor at the University of Houston, speculates that while Rather's missteps may have heightened caution on the part of media gatekeepers, Baker's timing alone may have sealed his story's cyberspace fate.
"There is a kind of concern in publishing anything in the last ten days of an election," says Jowett. "Most of the media is very reluctant to go with an October surprise."
Baker argues: "We're seeing a whole new pattern where media outlets are becoming increasingly irrelevant as their excessive caution -- which often favors the establishment -- opens up opportunities for alternative papers and online media." One question does arise, of course, and that's why Herskowitz himself sat on the material.
"He didn't sit on it," protests Baker. "He's not a political journalist. He ghostwrites biographies. There was nothing to sit on. He doesn't write these kinds of things." Baker says that after interviewing Herskowitz, he left several more phone messages asking him for any other notes he might have.
"I did not hear back and I finished writing the article, and then a week later he called me and expressed some concerns about the professional ramifications for himself," says Baker. They, at that point, apparently "agreed to disagree" on whether the conversations had been on the record, as Baker claims they were.
Herskowitz, when contacted by phone, said only, "It was off the record and half of it ended up being wrong." He added briefly before hanging up, "It's just gotten to be sort of ludicrous I've probably said more about it than it's worth." Yet the Chronicle ran its own coverage on Herskowitz's comments -- the only major daily, it appears, to piggyback Baker's Internet scoop.