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READERS' REPRESENTATIVE

Was The Times' Story Fair to Gov. Bush?

Many complained that story on his military service was biased and overplayed.

July 18, 1999|NARDA ZACCHINO

According to hundreds of our readers, this political season's "gotcha journalism" was launched in The Times on July 4 with a front-page story on GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.

The 2,300-word story detailed Bush's acceptance into the Guard, his unusual and quick rise to the rank of second lieutenant without any officer training and the "favorable treatment and uncommon attention in his time in the Guard." The story clearly stated that Bush, who achieved his dream to become a pilot, did not break any rules or laws, and the story notes, "There is no sign that political influence helped Bush along."

It suggested, however, that the special treatment Bush received, including a three-month transfer to the Alabama National Guard so he could work on a Republican's Senate campaign, was due to the fact that Bush's father was a Texas congressman at the time.

Lending weight to the story was its position toward the top of the front page--"above the fold," in newspaper jargon--with a two-column headline and a 1970 photo of Bush in uniform. The headline read, "Bush Received Quick Air Guard Commission," and the subhead said, "Candidate: During Vietnam War, he was given coveted spot in Texas unit and became officer without special training, credentials. There is no evidence rules were broken for him."

If there was no evidence of illegality or rules broken, why all the fuss, readers asked. This was "not great investigative reporting" but "just look at what we've got," said one reader. Several accused The Times of trying to "discredit" Bush because he is the GOP front-runner. "I think it was very nit-picky," said a South Bay reader. "Why don't you pick on that jerk Clinton, who's a draft dodger?"

While many critics of the story said it hadn't mentioned Clinton, it did talk about his maneuverings to get a deferral from service during the Vietnam War. Also noted was former GOP Vice President Dan Quayle's stint in the Indiana National Guard, an issue in his career, and the fact that Bush's fellow guardsmen included Lloyd Bentsen III, son of the former Democratic congressman and later senator from Texas, and several members of the Dallas Cowboys football team. It was such staffing of the Guard that led in the 1960s to charges that the well-connected could get into the Guard and escape service in Vietnam.

The story was sent over the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service and was run--at varying lengths--in several newspapers. One edited the story to 464 words and captured its essence. Other media combined elements of The Times story and a similar one from the Dallas Morning News, which portrayed Bush's Guard experience somewhat more positively. For example, it mentions that Bush, although he lacked the flying hours to qualify, volunteered for a program called Palace Alert, "which eventually rotated nine pilots from his unit into duty in Southeast Asia from 1969 to 1970."

The Vietnam War, during which 2.8 million American men and women served, 58,000 died, and 303,700 were injured, continues to ambush politicians who are forced to justify how and where they served their country during those years, suggesting that military service is a prerequisite to holding national political office. Could Bush be a capable president regardless of what he did in the 1960s? Of course.

Would The Times have done this investigation if Bush weren't the GOP front-runner? Doubtful. Does that give credence to readers' charges we are biased against Bush? No. A front-runner in either party receives much scrutiny, which may result in positive as well as negative reports. In fact, Bush has been the subject of many stories in The Times that spoke to his considerable strengths, including being a popular governor who strongly supports public education, diversity and is capable of bipartisan compromise.

The question is whether this story, while well-written, was worth its 65-inch length and front-page position if an exhaustive examination by a reporter and three researchers found only that "doors were opened and good fortune flowed to [Bush] at opportune times." Probably not. While especially compelling for political junkies and Vietnam veterans, one could understand why readers might complain the story had been overplayed, given that there was no wrongdoing on Bush's part. The six-column headline on the inside page where the story continued said it all: "Fast Commission to Guards, but No Broken Rules Seen."

Was this story legitimate to pursue? Absolutely. The public has a right, even an obligation, to learn how candidates for president have conducted themselves in the past. And the media have an obligation to illuminate that for the public. Also, a number of Americans--especially those who got drafted when they couldn't get into the Guard or those who lost family and friends in Vietnam--have a special interest in this issue.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect to this matter is why no reporter seems to have asked Bush the obvious question: If he wanted to be a combat pilot, why didn't he join the Air Force?

To reach the readers' representative, call (877) 554-4000; fax: (213) 237-3535; e-mail: readers.rep@latimes.com; mail: Times Mirror Square, L.A. 90053.

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