Sunday, September 12, 2004

False Documents, True Pain - And A Campaign That's Once Again Dead-In-The-Water

Ned Barnett (c) 2004

Almost lost in the public and media debate over the veracity of the apparently bogus memos about President Bush's career in the National Guard – about events that may or may not have taken place 30-plus years ago – is any thought as to how much this is hurting Senator Kerry.

In my opinion as both a campaign media manager and as communications professional, this is ongoing story – not questions about President Bush’s record, but the vigorous debate about some apparently forged memos – is hurting Kerry a lot. More important, this debate will continue to hurt Senator Kerry for as long as the story stays out there. Surprisingly, this damage to the Kerry campaign does NOT depend on the validity of the memos (if any) or on who really leaked them to CBS.

The funny thing (not “funny ha-ha,” but “funny ironic”) is that even if this memo had been legitimate, it would be no big deal at all. Candidate Bush has six years as Governor and four years as President on which to run on. Just as important, he has never made his National Guard service an issue – not the way Candidate Kerry did with his own Vietnam service.

Nationally, there must be at least 14 independent undecided voters who'd think that this issue (if real) outweighed Senator Kerry's 1971 anti-war Senate testimony.

So it's a pointless self-inflicted wound on Kerry's part. The memo, if true, can't help him, but it could prove to be near-fatal if the memo is a forgery – or perhaps, even if it’s validity is never proven. This brouhaha is one more example of the self-inflicted campaign wounds that have dogged Senator Kerry’s campaign from Day-one to Day-now. However, just the fact that there is a debate over forged documents – that alone – hurts Kerry, almost to the point where that snake-bit campaign has ground once more to a near-halt.

Here's why:

1. In a competitive political environment, any time dirt is leaked to the press, the initial assumption is that the opposition leaked that dirt. In this case, the hair-trigger response of Senator Tom Harkin, DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe (and others), all saying pretty much the same thing, makes it look as if the leak was not only a Democratic party sting operation, but that it was also a carefully coordinated sting. Of course, this coordinated response could have been spontaneous, or the Democrats could have merely had a remarkably efficient war-room operation. But this all-hands response LOOKS coordinated, and in an environment where voter perception is voter reality, how that response LOOKS is pretty much how that response IS.

So regardless of the ultimate validity of the memos, Senator Kerry will be presumed to have been the proximate source of the memos, the architect of this particular mud-slinging brouhaha.

2. Regardless of who slung this particular mud, there is a finite limit to the size of what the media calls the “news hole” – the amount of air time or column inches the media will devote to any subject, no matter how important. Like all other news stories, Presidential election news is divided into "Kerry news" and "Bush news."

At the start of this latest charge about Bush’s National Guard service, these now-discredited memos ate a serious hole into the "Bush news" news-hole taking press attention away from the messages the President was trying to put out to the public. The media assigned the memo story to the Bush news hole because those memos seemed to reflect on Bush and his fitness for the Presidency.

However, as soon as the story switched from the content of the memos to their potentially fraudulent nature, the news-judgment switched as well. Right or wrong, this story is now coming out of the "Kerry" news-hole. So, for as long as these apparently fraudulent memos (and their source, as well as their veracity) continues to be discussed in the media, those stories are displacing other Kerry stories – including, presumably, the positive Kerry-news stories that the campaign is trying to get out.

3. This story has taken on a life of it’s own. Because the major news media are intensely competitive, and because CBS is so vociferously defending the memos as legitimate – even in the face of rapidly-mounting evidence to the contrary, CBS’s competitors will keep the story alive, knowing that – by doing so – they are hurting their ratings and image rivals. To date, ABC and NBC have both forwarded major evidence of the fraudulent nature of these memos, as has CNN and a growing number of major newspapers, such as the Dallas Morning News.

For instance, ABC found a CBS source who said he was lied to (by CBS producers), and his comments were made based on this lie – he now has come forward claiming that the documents were indeed forged. Fox News found life-long Democratic pollster Pat Caddell to come forward with the view that these memos were indeed bogus, and that if this was so proved, then Kerry’s campaign would be over. Even CNN (known in the trade by some as the “Clinton News Network” for it’s steadfast support of Democratic candidates) piled on, with a damning think-piece about Dan Rather, written by CNN’s political guru Wolf Blitzer.

While most of this coverage is aimed at CBS, rather than at Kerry, the coverage keeps the story alive, keeps it eating at Kerry’s news hole, and keeps reminding Americans that Kerry’s people very likely perpetrated this fraud on CBS.

4. A major problem for Senator Kerry stemming from this story is a background issue of media credibility. Most of the media – along with most of the public at large – are sure to assume that Kerry’s people are behind this apparently forged memo. Once burnt, twice cautious, the media are going to be very, very careful about accepting any future leaked charges about Bush – especially leaked charges coming from known Democratic Party or Kerry Campaign sources.

Since, as Kerry’s campaign has lost momentum, more and more of his advisors have been telling the Senator to “go negative,” this new burnt-fingers caution on the part of the media will only serve to make the Senator’s job that much harder. At a time when he very much needed the media on his side (or at least complicitly neutral), he’s now got them anxious about charges and eager to double-check and triple-check sources before taking anti-Bush material being provided them by the Kerry campaign.

5. The more that evidence of the apparently fraudulent nature of those memos comes to light, the more that news – about the fraud – will tend make the forgers look inept, under-handed, dirty and perhaps even criminal. And because conventional wisdom will assign the creation and leaking of those forgeries to the Kerry campaign – or at least to Kerry supporters – their blatantly fraudulent nature will tend to make Kerry look inept, under-handed, dirty and perhaps even criminal. That image can NOT be helpful in a presidential campaign.

And why will all this hurt? Take a look at some of the problems now facing CBS and the Senator as they try to make the charges against President Bush stick:

a. At that time these memos were supposedly written, official USAF memos were all typed on official letterhead – even carbon sets were on watermarked "official" sheets. Yet there is no evidence that this memo was typed on official letterhead (and CBS refuses to release or allow to be examined the "original" documents in their possession).

b. The whole typography question is troubling for those who would prove the documents valid. While it's at least remotely possible that an isolated Air National Guard unit had the very latest in what was then high-tech office equipment, it's very unlikely that they did. I expect that very soon some enterprising reporter to unearth other memos typed up for Colonel Killian on or about the same date, and those memos will prove the matter – one way or the other.

c. It now seems that CBS intentionally avoided talking to some legitimate sources who could have debunked the memos before air-time. This is according to Gary Killian (the son of Colonel Killian, and also an officer in President Bush’s Air Guard Unit), who – along with his step-mother (Colonel Killian’s wife) – provided two names to CBS that they declined to interview. A producer told Gary Killian that these two sources were "too Bush,” suggesting that this was not news reporting, but an advocacy piece.

d. It now seems that CBS lied to a retired Major General, Bobby W. Hodges – who served as Colonel Killian's commander, and who was presented as CBS’s “ace in the hole” in originally validating the memos. However, General Hodges now claims that, to get him to make an on-air statement, CBS told him that Colonel Killian had hand-written the note, which of course is not true. Once he learned that the memos were typed, General Hodges publicly repudiated his CBS-aired comments, and now says that he believes the memos are forgeries.

e. It now appears that Colonel Killian’s immediate superior officer, the man who supposedly forced Colonel Killian to write the memo that started all this controversy, had in fact retired 18 months before the memo was written. So, unless he had a time machine, he was not in any position to have forced Killian to write the CBS memo. This easily checked mistake is one more reason to believe that the memo used by CBS was nothing more than a clumsy forgery.

There are a number of other pieces of fairly technical and specific evidence of forgery (and just plain bad journalism) tied up in this story – but the above five examples are sufficient to prove the point that it is (apparently) a fairly clumsy forgery.

What's really important are three specific facts:

1. In the minds of the public, Senator Kerry will be blamed for – or at least tied to – this clumsy forgery.

2. The media’s news hole for Kerry will continued to be tied up with news that is not going to help Senator Kerry get elected President – and this story will drag on for as long as CBS’s competitors can continue to “count coup” at Dan Rather’s expense.

3. The media will be extremely reluctant to take any charges against President Bush from Senator Kerry or his supporters – not without a lot of double-checking of sources and information. Every charge Kerry makes against Bush will be presumed to be a forgery until proven valid, making it even harder for Senator Kerry to make a legitimate case against the President in the 50 days remaining of this campaign.

Bottom line? At a time when Senator Kerry is the clear underdog (Time Magazine, for instance, shows that the Bush convention bounce is still there, undimmed) and needs to focus all of his efforts at pulling ahead of the President, he's being distracted by a side-issue of no particular importance. His news-hole is being eaten up by discussion (between and among the media, who won't let this story die) about the forgery. He's being tarred – fairly or unfairly – with complicity in the forgery. The Senator’s Presidential campaign remains stalled, dead in the water, at a time when he's still locked firmly in second place – when he really needs to be moving forward to recapture lost ground.

And that's got to hurt.

The time for a PR make-over and messaging turn-around is fast running out for the Senator from Massachusetts. He's reputed to be at his best when he's running behind, and the race gets down to the wire. Well, he's behind, and time is running out. Let's see how he pulls this one out.

Win or lose, it will be fascinating. One for the books.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, long-time political campaign consultant and owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (, is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

As a political consultant and speechwriter, Barnett has worked for candidates and officials from both parties, as well as for public interest advocacy groups in areas involving the economy, the environment and healthcare. As a historian, Barnett is widely published in military history magazines, and has appeared a number of times on the History Channel, discussing military technology.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.

© 2004 – Ned Barnett
Barnett Marketing Communications