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August 18, 2004

TOM HARKIN, FAKE WAR HERO: In an update to an earlier post, I noted some comments by Donald Sensing about Sen. Tom Harkin, most recently seen attacking the patriotism of Dick Cheney. Sensing observed: "Harkin himself claimed to have battled Mig fighters over North Vietnam while a Navy pilot. He was a pilot, but never went to Vietnam."

A reader emailed to say that he didn't think Sensing's sourcing was good enough for a charge of that magnitude. It seemed to me that I remembered some Harkin truth-stretching from back then, and I trust Sensing, but in keeping with Walter Cronkite's warnings about poorly sourced stories on the Internet, I decided to do some research at lunchtime. In a book called Stolen Valor : How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History, I found this passage, which is considerably worse for Harkin than Sensing's short summary. I'm reproducing it as an image for the benefit of doubters.

I also found an article from the Wall Street Journal, entitled "Harkin Presidential Bid Marred by Instances In Which Candidate Appears to Stretch Truth," dated December 26, 1991, p. A12. (Sorry -- I got this via WESTLAW so I can't post a link, but the WESTLAW page number is 1991 WL-WSJ 578809.) [LATER: It's now available for free on the Web, thanks to James Taranto.] It supports the above. Here's an excerpt:

In 1979, Mr. Harkin, then a congressman, participated in a round-table discussion arranged by the Congressional Vietnam Veterans' Caucus. "I spent five years as a Navy pilot, starting in November of 1962," Mr. Harkin said at that meeting, in words that were later quoted in a book, Changing of the Guard, by Washington Post political writer David Broder. "One year was in Vietnam. I was flying F-4s and F-8s on combat air patrols and photo-reconnaisance support missions. I did no bombing."

That clearly is not an accurate picture of his Navy service. Though Mr. Harkin stresses he is proud of his Navy record -- "I put my ass on the line day after day" -- he concedes now he never flew combat air patrols in Vietnam. . . .

Mr. Harkin's Navy record shows his only decoration is the National Defense Service Medal, awarded to everyone on active service during those years. He did not receive either the Vietnam Service medal or the Vietnam Campaign medal, the decorations given to everyone who served in the Southeast Asia theater. "We didn't get them for what we did," Mr. Harkin says. "It's never bothered me."

Two things bother me about this. One is that Harkin seems a rather odd choice for the Democrats as an attack dog. As Sensing notes, what are they thinking?

The other is that I managed to do this research over my lunch hour, but it doesn't seem to be noted in the press treatment of Harkin's charges by the people who get, you know, paid to do this stuff. (Take that, Walter!) And it would seem that when Harkin -- who didn't serve in Vietnam combat but who lied about it, and whose actual military service seems rather similar to Bush's -- calls Dick Cheney a "coward" because he didn't serve in Vietnam, well, it ought to be worth mentioning. Shouldn't it be?

Instead, CNN calls Harkin a "former Navy fighter pilot," (though it at least gets the details of his service correct).

Calling Harkin "a Senator who, like President Bush, flew fighter jets during the Vietnam era without seeing combat but who, unlike President Bush, lied about it," would be more accurate, but it would kind of change the story. Wonder why nobody looked into this? Or, if they knew, bothered to note it?

As with the Kerry Christmas-in-Cambodia story, this is probably more significant for what it tells us about the sorry state of political journalism this campaign season than for what it tells us about the speaker.

UPDATE: Roger Simon has more thoughts on today's political journalism, and Harkin.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Daniel Moore observes:

The blogosphere has clearly shown the world that there are a whole host of stories that old media doesn't cover out of sheer laziness and that any quick look for actual facts can contradict many stories that, say, political candidates put out and then [are] taken as fact by the media. Newspaper reporters used to know this - and they used to look for those facts. They used to check sources. They used to search for the truth in a way that would make any skeptic proud. But now they just read the press releases and change a word here or there.

It sure seems that way, sometimes, on some stories.

MORE: Reader Greg Swenson emails: "I was infuriated about Harkin's comments because I too did some coffee break Googling and found the same notes regarding the Senator's exaggerations of his service after I recalled the earlier incident. I'm a goddamn salesman and even I (underlined with emphasis) could fact check Harkin's ass. Why can't these blow-dried prima donnas news types do it?" Beats me. Guess they don't want to. "Gulf War Veteran" Bryan Preston has more.

STILL MORE: Well, glory be -- somebody did notice this. Reader Jim Adair emails: "Last night on Brit Hume's Fox News show, Hume mentioned the Harkin attack on Cheney and also mentioned that Harkin had overly expressed his service contribution during a presidential bid. Fair AND balanced!" [LATER: Here's a link to the transcript: scroll to the bottom.]

Sean Hackbarth writes: "I'm sensing a pattern." This seems to be getting rather a lot of attention now.

Michael Drout, journalist-turned-professor, explains why journalists don't want to look for facts anymore:

Based on my experience at J-school, I can generalize a couple things about journalists around my age that could explain some of the problems. First, nearly all of us were in J-school not because we wanted to be reporters, but because we wanted to write. . . . Thus reporters are ripe for the temptation of press-releases: and most press-release-writing flacks are people with journalism degrees who know exactly how to write a release so that the reporter can edit out obvious promotion but still buy the overall spin.

Second, almost all of the J-school program at Stanford was spent trying to get us to think about the implications of journalism, the politics of reporting, the influence of journalists, etc.

He concludes:

I think this is a long-term big problem for Journalism, the profession. It has been eating its seed corn for a decade or more, and so much of its cultural authority is used up. This can be good, in that it reduces the influence of unaccountable institutions, like the big daily papers. But it's also bad, because once everyone stops believing the newspapers, you have a huge problem of vetting and evaluating information.

Indeed.

FINALLY: Reader Dennis Preiser emails:

All of the talk about lazy journalism, etc., etc. is not the "real deal" in Harkin's story or any other story. The point that should be made is that the only stories that are not pursued with zeal by the MSM are the ones that benefit George W. Bush. There is absolutely no other factor of import involved. It's nothing but bias, pure and simple. Period.

Well, they did seem to work a lot harder on the AWOL claims. . . .