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The infamous Hanoi Hilton, as it was being converted into a historical site. (AP)

Anybody read the L.A. Times? Rolling Stone?

COMMENTARY | October 13, 2008

Leading news organizations, the TV networks and cable news political operations are disregarding well-documented news stories that by themselves, if true, could cost John McCain the election. The media are hiding the news, not reporting it.

By Barry Sussman

Assertions have been made against John McCain that, if true, could persuade many people that he is unqualified to be president. The charges go to his judgment, character and honesty. They deal with his time in the military before, during and after the 5-1/2 years he was a prisoner in Vietnam.

The charges have not been sufficiently aired in the press. Indeed, they have been mentioned so rarely that most Americans aren’t aware of them. In fact, instead of airing the charges, one could well conclude that the press has been withholding them—hiding them. Almost all the leading news organizations, instead of reporting or following up on stories which by themselves could swing the election, are running away from them.

There are exceptions. One is the Los Angeles Times, another is Rolling Stone magazine. It’s not their fault that the rest of the press has dodged their well-documented, eyeball-bulging news stories.

On Sept. 6, I suggested on this Web site that the press look into McCain’s record as a pilot before he was shot down over Hanoi. I wrote that “McCain has made his military experience a key reason to vote for him. Reporters should examine his military records, including reports on air mishaps he was involved in before he was shot down over Hanoi. And McCain should see to it that all reports are made public.”

I mentioned three highly questionable incidents—one in which he flew a plane into Corpus Christi Bay, one where he was flying so low – “daredevil clowning,” in his own words – that he sheared power lines in Spain, and one in which he had to bail out of a training plane while flying solo, said to be on his way back to Norfolk from an Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia. The plane crashed into a woods.

A month later, on Oct. 6, the L.A. Times reported at length on these incidents in a front-page article. Regarding Corpus Christi, the Times noted, “McCain recounted the accident decades later in his autobiography. ‘The engine quit while I was practicing landings,’ he wrote. But an investigation board at the Naval Aviation Safety Center found no evidence of engine failure.”

In fact, the investigators concluded, according to the Times story, that “the 23-year-old junior lieutenant wasn't paying attention and erred in using ‘a power setting too low to maintain level flight in a turn.’”

So at question here is not only McCain’s ability and judgment as a pilot but also his honesty or reliability in recounting the event.

The Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, which no doubt circulated the story, has more than 300 clients in the United States and a good number abroad. Googling to see who picked it up, I found it mentioned in the Times of India; Politico, which mischaracterized it; AFP, the French wire service; AGI, an Italian wire service; UPI; the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Fort Worth Star Telegram, which ran the entire story—but apparently only online. I didn’t see any mention of it on a TV network. Of course it’s possible I missed entries.

I emailed the Times reporters, Richard Serrano and Ralph Vartabedian. Serrano said the two had received “tons of email.” Vartabedian said it showed up in some newspapers, including ones in Baltimore and Miami.

Between what I found and what Vartabedian knew of, that’s not very much, is it? By comparison, say, to Swift Boat reports in the 2004 election?

The Times reported that it “asked McCain's campaign to release any military personnel records in the candidate's possession showing how the Navy handled the three incidents. The campaign said it would have no comment.”

The Rolling Stone story, by reporter Tim Dickinson, is a tour de force. It is titled "Make -Believe Maverick" and subtitled, "A closer look at the life and career of John McCain reveals a disturbing record of recklessness and dishonesty.” It has caused a furor on the Web—but I haven’t found any mention of it in the mainstream media.

Dickinson did the obvious: He found fellow prisoners of war and asked them about McCain. One whom he found was John Dramesi, who McCain has called "one of the toughest guys I've ever met." The feeling doesn’t appear to be mutual. Writes Dickinson, quoting Dramesi:

"McCain says his life changed while he was in Vietnam, and he is now a different man," Dramesi says today. "But he's still the undisciplined, spoiled brat that he was when he went in."

There is one act that more than others that puts people in awe of McCain -- his refusal to be released as a POW out of turn, before others who were captured earlier.

Here is some of what Dickinson reported on that:

What McCain glosses over is that accepting early release would have required him to make disloyal statements that would have violated the military's Code of Conduct. If he had done so, he could have risked court-martial and an ignominious end to his military career. "Many of us were given this offer," according to [Phil] Butler, McCain's classmate [at the Naval Academy] who was also taken prisoner. "It meant speaking out against your country and lying about your treatment to the press. You had to 'admit' that the U.S. was criminal and that our treatment was 'lenient and humane.' So I, like numerous others, refused the offer."

"He makes it sound like it was a great thing to have accomplished," says Dramesi. "A great act of discipline or strength. That simply was not the case." In fairness, it is difficult to judge McCain's experience as a POW; throughout most of his incarceration he was the only witness to his mistreatment…

"John allows the media to make him out to be the hero POW, which he knows is absolutely not true, to further his political goals," says Butler. "John was just one of about 600 guys. He was nothing unusual. He was just another POW."

The Rolling Stone piece is well-documented but very harsh. Andrew Sullivan, writing in his Atlantic magazine blog, said, “It's about as brutal as any profile I've ever read. But it also has many critical figures on the record, and carries with it a real whiff of truth and insight.”

Rolling Stone has a history of excellent political reporting but it’s not the New York Times or Washington Post. How odd is it that it, and not those publications or some other leading news organization should do something as basic as find fellow prisoners of McCain and interview them, and explain so clearly the POW early-release protocol.

News isn’t proprietary; the L.A. Times and Rolling Stone don’t own the information they produced. Dramesi, Butler and other former POWs are still around and might agree to interviews. But you can’t tell that from looking at the mainstream print media, the TV networks and the three cable news operations that ballyhoo their political reporting and acumen.

A blogger, Jeff Stein of Congressional Quarterly, asked the McCain camp to comment on the Rolling Stone allegations. They wouldn’t. I guess that is to be expected. McCain would just as soon try to make it appear that Rolling Stone is biased, writing from the left. It’s sad that the press is letting him get away with that.

If parts of the story are wrong, the main news organizations should put out a correct version. If the story is substantially correct, they should report that. Disregarding it altogether is a forfeit.

I don’t understand the reason for it. If you do, maybe you can explain it to me.

Re: Dramesi Comments
Posted by Evelyn Zerfas
10/22/2008, 11:49 PM

This is a direct quote from a book Dramesi wrote in 1975 entitled "Code of Honor", W.W. Norton & Co. I found this in a local library. Here is what he said about POW McCain, page 191: " I met white-haired John McCain for the first time. We shook hands and hugged as though we were longtime friends. The magnetism of two men with like attitudes and respect for one another was easily felt.Most of the time he moved around on a crutch.He had a broken arm and a damaged knee, yet he was able to get up on stools and devise the most ingenious ways of communicating. He was always on the move, smiling and waving to people he knew were watching and disregarding the guards' harassment. The sight of the lively John McCain was enough to lift your spirits for the rest of the week. For the weak he was an inspiration; for the strong a constant reminder to keep trying. It was not the North Vietnamese who impelled John's smiling and laughing. He had a smile for all Americans and a disdain for the North Vietnamese. He was thin and not a big man,but there was no doubt John had heart." Also, regarding the joke about taking the airstrip home, McCain wrote about that in one of his own books. It was a joke.

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