The scandal involving CBS and its now debunked report on President Bush’s service in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War raises issues that might help people in the Middle East better understand the priorities and flaws of the American people and its media.
CBS was forced to publicly apologize for airing a report on its high profile segment, "60 Minutes". The celebrated media organization apparently relied on forged documents to argue President Bush may not have served honorably while in U.S. Military service. Worse, the producer on the story may have been inclined to overlook the flaws because of personal political biases.
As details of the documents surface, it seems clear they are forgeries.
But what’s fascinating and should be of interest to the Arab World in trying to understand the American media, is how oftentimes the delivery of the facts in a new story is more important than the facts themselves.
The fact is, the debate over the media’s character has overshadowed the debate over the character of the two men who would be president.
The American media is rarely satisfied with just having a "good story". They always want more.
The story of President Bush and his military service is really a simple one complicated both by this media character flaw, and by the presidential elections. Bush is being challenged by John Kerry, a Vietnam War hero Democratic presidential nominee.
Kerry served active duty on the front lines in Vietnam earning a Silver Star and a Bronze Star. He also received three Purple Hearts given to soldiers who receive "wounds".
Although both men served at the same time during the height of the Vietnam War fighting, Bush didn’t serve active duty. Instead, Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard. Unlike today, national guard units during the Vietnam war were rarely activated to participate in combat.
Every American over the age of 18, and certainly the ages of Bush and Kerry, would have been drafted into service during the Vietnam War. One way to avoid active duty and fighting on the front lines where the dangers were certain was to join an Air National Guard. There was one in nearly every state.
But getting into the Air National Guard was difficult, unless you had political clout. The waiting lists were long and most applicants were rejected and sent to Vietnam to fight.
Bush had political clout. He was appointed to the Texas Air National Guard through the connections of his father, George H.W. Bush who was then a U.S. Congressman and later vice president and president.
Kerry served multiple tours of duty in Vietnam — meaning that he returned to the front lines even though after serving your first tour of duty you could have returned to a safe assignment in the states. And you might think that the fact that Kerry served in the face of danger, and Bush instead chose to serve in a position that was as far away from real danger as possible, would be a campaign issue that distinguishes the two men.
In the face of danger, Kerry showed character and could have been killed. In contrast, Bush avoided danger and sought the safety of a stateside assignment that faced no real dangers and had no chance of ever being assigned to a war zone for combat.
It’s a character issue, especially since Bush has advocated that Americans go to war with Iraq and other nations in pursuit of "terrorism."
Yet the CBS scandal demonstrates how the real issues are often cast aside and instead the focus is on the peripheral process of how one gets to the truth.
The documents CBS relied on show that Bush’s military superior officer in the Air National Guard felt pressured to allow Bush to briefly transfer and leave his safe, non-combat assignment to go to Alabama where he could continue his "military service" and be able to work on the political campaign of a Republican ally of his father.
Yet, even without the documents, it is a fact that Bush did leave the Texas Air National Guard for assignment in Alabama so he could work on a congressional campaign there.
Not only was President Bush able to avoid serving in a war zone while still being able to claim he earned military service in the safety of a non-combat Air National Guard unit, but Bush also got preferential treatment allowing him to continue to earn Air National Guard credits elsewhere while serving a purely political mission.
Bush was able to do what nearly every other American his age at the time who didn’t have a father who was a politically connected congressman could not do. They could not avoid fighting in Vietnam or serve in active duty, taking them away from their normal lives and careers and schooling.
In contrast, Kerry did what nearly every military-aged American was forced to do. He went to a war zone and fought in Vietnam. More than 69,000 Americans like Kerry didn’t return and were killed in that war.
Kerry faced death. Bush avoided service.
Supporters of President Bush are gleefully exploiting the CBS scandal to deflect American attention from these basic and fundamental facts. You don’t need more documents to prove these events.
But this is the nature of the American media accepted in American politics and American society: How you deliver truth is often more important than the truth itself.