Chasing Its Tale
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 breakon 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.
"I think in some ways it would have been weird if [the Chronicle] didn't go with the story," says Jowett. "But it was very innocuous and a lot of it was 'Oh, it was very unfortunate that this happened' and Mickey being a little upset.
"They didn't make much of the story," continues Jowett, who is an acquaintance of Herskowitz's. "I think they had to do the story because otherwise they would've been accused of 'spiking' it, but they did it in a way that sort of buried it."
According to news archives, the piece ran on page ten of the front section. In it, Herskowitz appears to be upset that Baker linked so explicitly Bush's thoughts on "political capital" and invading Iraq. The Chron article also made no mention of Baker's claim that the elder Bush "indicated to [his son] that he disagreed with his son's invasion of Iraq," in addition to avoiding the National Guard issue or Bush's business record. Kim Cobb, who wrote the story for the Chronicle, declined comment.
Jowett posits that because the nature of the assertions -- Bush's National Guard service, Iraq -- were familiar territory, it may not have gotten the legs of other Internet "scoops."
"If [Herskowitz] had said George Bush is a cross-dresser, that's one thing, but I think people knew a lot of this information before," he says.
Baker maintains that only once in their discussions did Herskowitz ask to go off the record, a request he says he honored by keeping that portion of the interview out of the article.
Somewhat presciently, in the days following Bush's re-election, the president returned to the same theme of not wasting the "political capital" he'd earned -- terms that echoed Herskowitz's recollections to Baker.
"He went right back to that same language," says Baker. He notes that he's received numerous requests for follow-up from blogs, radio talk shows and syndicated columnist Helen Thomas. "They all seem to think that this is enormously significant information that should have been out before." Baker noticed, too, that Herskowitz had contacted former president George H.W. Bush's camp to give them heads-up on the piece.
"I think that could possibly explain why at least one major publication reversed its decision to publish the story at the 11th hour," says Baker, again declining to name the news outlet.
"I think [Herskowitz] was candid with me and I respect him for that. I hope he respects me for doing the right thing," says Baker. "I don't think this story is about him or me. I think this is typical of other tempests in a teapot. The issue here is what Bush said to him. I wish we would spend more time paying attention to who our leaders really are and a little less attention to sideline stories about the production process."
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