Murtha: Worth His Medals?

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. gestures during a Capitol Hill news conference, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2005 to discuss the Iraq War. Murtha, an influential House Democrat who voted for the Iraq war called Thursday for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, another sign of growing unease in Congress about the conflict. AP

Dotty Lynch is CBSNews.com's Political Points columnist. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points

Jack Murtha has been driving Republicans nuts since November but they have been very reluctant to attack him frontally. But this weekend, just before Murtha went on CBS' 60 Minutes to push his exit strategy from Iraq, the CybercastNews Service.com (formerly Conservative News Service) blasted not his plan, but his bona fides as a war hero.

The attack, reminiscent of the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth charges against John Kerry, came in the form of an "investigative" story by CNSNews.com reporters Marc Morano and Randy Hall questioning the legitimacy of Murtha's Purple Hearts. Cybercast News Service is a subsidiary of conservative media critic Brent Bozell's Media Research Center. It bears some similarity to Talon News, the old stomping ground of Jeff Gannon, which had to close down last year after Gannon's legitimacy as a real reporter was questioned. But CNSNews.com has been around for a while.

The news service was founded in 1998 as an alternative to allegedly liberally biased news services. It has a staff of 12 reporters in the U.S. and abroad who file stories for the Cybercast News Web site and for subscribers, like GOPUSA, who pay to put the content on their sites. Most staffers have conservative credentials, as well as some type of reporting background, and they claim to be reputable journalists catering to a conservative audience. Marc Moreno, who wrote the article on Murtha, is a former producer for the Rush Limbaugh Show, and his bio touts a real coup: he was the first journalist to have his camera confiscated by the Clinton White House. Their reporters are credentialed to cover the U.S. Congress, the State Department, the Pentagon, the European Parliament and the Israeli Knesset. They say they haven't tried to get a "hard pass" for the White House lately, but can get access via day passes.

On Friday night, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann named CNSNews.com president Brent Bozell that day's "worst person in the world," and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called the article "scurrilous." Some liberal blogs, including the Huffington Post charged that CNSNews.com was doing dirty work for the White House and Karl Rove, a suggestion vigorously denied by David Thibault, editor-in-chief of CNSNews.com.

"I have never met or exchanged e-mails with Karl Rove and the last time I met George Bush was when I was following him around as a reporter," Thibault told me. Thibault, like most of the CNS News staff, has a reporting background as well as partisan ties. He worked for a couple of local Washington, D.C., TV stations before joining the staff of the RNC and working on the Hill for New Hampshire Sen. (then-Congressman) Judd Gregg.

He said the reason for doing the article, which regurgitated charges that surfaced in Murtha's House campaigns over the years, was that the establishment media has ignored them because Murtha was carrying their water. "There is a tendency in the establishment media to give a pass to people who criticize the administration," Thibault told me. He says the questions about the medals are legitimate because Murtha and the antiwar left are using his decorated status for political advantage.

There is no doubt that virtually every article about Murtha mentions his 37 years of service in the Marines and the Purple Hearts, but much of his credibility comes from his years of work with the Defense Department and the military. There is a well-founded belief in Washington that Murtha is in sync with many generals and military officials who can't go public in questioning the administration's Iraq policy. But clearly some conservatives think that if they can raise questions about Murtha's integrity and military record, his clout can be diminished.

Murtha has given skittish Democrats a way to talk about getting out of Iraq without looking like wimps, but some pundits are questioning whether this is working to the Democrats' advantage. Congressional election analyst Charlie Cook has suggested that "Democrats, most notably Murtha" have changed the focus from Bush's mistakes to a debate over how and when to get out.

The irony is that Murtha may be doing the Republicans some good. As John Kerry discovered, what he did in Vietnam doesn't matter to voters in the 21st century nearly as much as what he has done for them lately. And the 72-year-old Murtha is clearly working on his current record, not sitting around polishing the old medals.
  • Joel Roberts

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