The Bush campaign’s accusations of John Kerry’s “flip-flopping” were, for the most part, uncritically echoed by a media not prepared to challenge Bush’s misleading rhetoric. The media’s rule seemed to be that journalists could not accuse Bush of deception without finding a balancing example–however trivial or far-fetched–of Kerry stretching the truth (FAIR Action Alert, 9/3/04). Figuring out that the media were thus giving him carte blanche to fabricate as much as he wanted to, Bush stepped up his game in the final days of the campaign, discovering new instances of Kerry shifting his position on the war in Afghanistan.
Kerry had often criticized the administration’s handling of the search for Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora. Late in the campaign, Bush charged that this flew in the face of Kerry’s old assessment of the very same event. “In the fall of 2001,” Bush charged, Kerry “said this about Tora Bora: ‘I think we’ve been doing this pretty effectively and we should continue to do it that way.’ At the time, the senator said about Tora Bora, ‘I think we’ve been smart. I think the administration leadership has done it well, and we are on the right track.'”
But Bush was taking Kerry’s words, which came from an interview on CNN‘s Larry King Live (12/14/01), grossly out of context. When a viewer asked “why they don’t use napalm or flamethrowers on those tunnels and caves up there in Afghanistan,” Kerry replied:
In other words, Kerry was suggesting that napalm and flamethrowers might be ill-suited for the mission to find Osama bin Laden.
The second comment that Bush quoted came in response to this general question from host Larry King: “Senator Kerry–and this is for all of you–how goes it so far in Afghanistan, in your opinion?” So Bush was incorrect about this quote, too, being “about Tora Bora.”
Unfortunately, some journalists covering Bush’s campaign appearance passed along his allegations, but failed to raise questions about their accuracy. CNN‘s John King (10/25/04) merely talked up the Bush campaign strategy of showing “that Senator Kerry has been inconsistent on Iraq.” King elaborated:
He then quoted from Bush’s speech, but failed to provide the context of Kerry’s statements, even though they were made on his own network.
NBC Nightly News correspondent David Gregory (10/25/04) also failed to challenge Bush’s claims, opting instead to explain Bush’s strategy to NBC viewers: “Today, the Bush campaign tracked down an interview Kerry gave at the time, praising the effort to find bin Laden at Tora Bora. The president quoted Kerry’s words.” Unfortunately, Gregory did not compare Bush’s description of Kerry’s words with Kerry’s actual remarks.
And reporters who had more time to evaluate Bush’s claims were hardly any better. Nearly a week after Bush made his misleading accusations, NBC‘s Tim Russert (10/31/04) was adding his own layer of deception, saying that Kerry’s comments came “after Tora Bora,” which is simply false.
Even further from the truth was Fox host Chris Wallace’s characterization of the context of Kerry’s remarks (Fox News Sunday, 10/31/04): Wallace said Kerry had been “asked about the question of letting Afghan warlords try to capture bin Laden.”
Likewise, New York Times columnist David Brooks (10/30/04) quoted Kerry’s answer to the question about flamethrowers to support Brooks’ assertion that “Kerry supported the strategy of using Afghans to hunt him down.” (Brooks retracted his claim on November 13–a week and a half after the election.)
The context of Kerry’s quote, apparently, could be any number of things–so long as it supported the stereotype the Bush campaign had established of Kerry being a “flip-flopper.”