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Press distorts Clark’s comments

SOURCE: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

7/2/08—Dramatically misleading accounts of comments made by retired general Wesley Clark concerning Republican nominee John McCain have dominated corporate media campaign coverage for days.

Clark's statement on CBS’s Face the Nation (6/29/08) that “I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president” has been distorted and taken dramatically out of context. Media have portrayed Clark’s comment as an attack on McCain’s military record, with some journalists even likening it to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign to smear John Kerry's service record (FAIR Media Advisory, 8/30/04).

Clark's comment was made after Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer asked the former general about his previous statement that McCain was "untested and untried." In his response, Clark declared:

“I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands of millions of others in the armed forces as a prisoner of war.”

However, Clark argued that McCain's military experience did not have any direct correlation with the executive responsibilities that a president faces.

At this point, Schieffer interrupted Clark's answer:

SCHIEFFER: I have to say, Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down. I mean...

CLARK: Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.


The language that has caused such controversy was thus actually borrowed from the CBS host. Yet as Media Matters has documented (7/1/08), several media reports quoted Clark without mentioning the comment from the CBS host that prompted Clark’s controversial statement, and many failed to note that Clark had praised McCain’s military record. Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz actually criticized Clark in an online article (Washington, 7/1/08) for not offering such praise: "Barack Obama frequently prefaces his criticism of McCain with a nod to his honorable service. Which raises the question: What was Wes thinking?"

Moreover, many journalists misleadingly implied that Clark’s comments were an attack on McCain’s military service record. The New York Times (7/1/08) referred to Clark’s comments as having “diminished Senator John McCain's service as a naval aviator in Vietnam." On the June 30 edition of MSNBC Live, anchor Monica Novotny claimed that Clark "blasted McCain's military record."

In the Wall Street Journal (6/30/08), Gerald Seib and Sara Murray wrote, “The one certainty of the 2008 campaign, it might have seemed, was that Sen. John McCain would be acknowledged all around as a war hero for his service in Vietnam--but apparently not.” On ABC World News (6/30/08), Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics called Clark's statement “almost the equivalent for them of an attack on Obama's race by the McCain side. It's just something you don't do.”

Some outlets, including the Los Angeles Times (7/1/08) and NPR (6/30/08) compared the dust-up to the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a conservative group that peddled inaccurate stories about John Kerry's Vietnam record, asserting that he did not deserve the medals he had been awarded. The host of NPR’s Bryant Park Project Mike Pesca called Clark's comments "pretty much the same as John Kerry and the swift boating."

The comparison between Clark’s statements and the Swift Boats campaign is absurd. Clark had praised McCain's military service in the CBS interview, before pointing out that this was not a qualification for the presidency (a point that McCain himself has made several times, and which numerous conservative media commentators noted in regards to Kerry in 2004--Media Matters, 7/1/08). For the two situations to be at all similar, Clark would have to have said that McCain was embellishing his record as a POW. In fact, the only connection between these two phenomena would seem to be the fact that McCain’s campaign has hired a former member of the Swift Boat campaign to work on his own presidential bid (, 6/30/08).

Another difference is that the media were much quicker to denounce Clark’s comments than they were the Swift Boat smears. As an editorial in the L.A. Times (8/24/04) noted back in 2004, "The canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false." As FAIR noted at the time (FAIR Media Advisory, 8/30/04), "One suspects that the "canons of the profession" would be interpreted differently if, for example, Republican Sen. John McCain was the target of similarly unsubstantiated charges about his military service from a partisan Democratic group."

Or, as it turns out, if McCain were the target of legitimate questions about the relevance of his military experience to the job of president.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting is a nonpartisan media watchdog organization. Visit for more information, or share your opinion about this story by writing to Republished in the Chronicle with permission from F.A.I.R.

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This story was published on July 3, 2008.