By: Thomas Lipscomb
The Boston Globe and The Los Angeles Times initially refused to confirm or deny that they had a copy, or had even seen a copy, of the Standard Form 180 (SF-180) by which Sen. John Kerry?s ?complete? military records were released over the past several days. This threw serious doubt on whether either newspaper took sufficient reasonable care in evaluating the chain of transmission by which they received the Kerry documents.
In response to my story in the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday, the Managing Editor of the Boston Globe, Mary Jane Wilkinson, has now told Sun-Times editors that the Globe does indeed have a copy of Kerry?s Standard Form 180 used in delivering the documents to the Globe. That is reassuring, but it remains to be seen whether the Globe will release copies of the SF-180 in their possession, and that is important.
According to Mark Sullivan, a former Navy JAG officer who worked directly for the Secretary of the Navy, the SF-180 can release anything and everything and nothing much at all, depending on how it is executed. So it is incumbent upon anyone relying on statements, much less making them, concerning the production of documents to examine its wording carefully. One must evaluate it the same way an attorney would examine a request for discovery document in a legal case to see if it is artfully worded in a way not easily apparent to a non-specialist that excludes vital material.
Even when a source is doing their best to cooperate, the maze of the giant government bureaucracy can release some documents and not others for a variety of reasons. Kerry could have been doing his best to release all his documents on the SF-180 and still have things stuck in some subsection of the National Archives.
The Associated Press last summer, after chasing documents on President Bush for four years, finally had to sue for injunctive relief to get the U.S. government to release the last documents. The head of the AP, Tom Curley, told me, ?This wasn?t the fault of the White House. They were doing everything they could to help us. But without a court order we couldn?t get the last documents.?
Journalists are seldom specialists. That is why they consult experts to help them make this kind of evaluation. It is now reasonable to assume that both papers used experts to examine the transmission SF-180 before they gave Kerry the very thing he was looking for: the imprimatur of two great newspapers that he had ?provided access to his complete records? (L.A. Times) and that he ?authorized the release of his complete medical and military records? (Boston Globe).
But there is still no evidence to support that confirmation, other than their assertion. There may be if, as I hope, these newspapers, or John Kerry himself, decide to reconsider and allow his SF-180 to be examined and the form is indeed filled out properly. In that case their stories are perfectly in order and deserve congratulations and I will be the first to say so.
The day before Globe reporter Michael Kranish released his story on the documents he called Kerry?s nemesis during the presidential campaign, John O?Neill, head of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. He told me he cautioned Kranish about the difficulties of an SF-180 release.
He stated that he sent Kranish directly a copy of his own he had filled out in response to Kerry?s challenge to him to do so on the ?Meet the Press? show on January 30 on which Kerry promised to sign his. O?Neill?s SF-180, signed January 31st. was released to the media and has been available online since March 1st.
Now that the Boston Globe has in its possession what it claims are Kerry?s ?full military and medical records? is the Globe ready to make these much-anticipated records available to the public? Managing Editor Mary Jane Wilkinson replied, ?It is my understanding that Kerry will release these papers to anyone else now that he has signed the Form 180. The Boston Globe is not going to make available the papers we have received.?
But ?the onus is on the Globe to explain why they are not releasing the records. They at least ought to give the public some reason,? according to former journalism dean and Fordham University Larkin professor Everette Dennis.
?With the opportunity to release the Kerry material on the internet inexpensively, there certainly is no physical problem preventing the Globe from publishing them,? Bill Gaines, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of Illinois, told me. ?The decision they have made certainly doesn?t seem to be in the interest of their readers and not very good journalism.?
Both the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times claim that Kerry will release any papers in their possession to anyone else who applies. But that isn?t what The New York Sun?s Josh Gerstein found when he called Kerry?s able press representative, David Wade. Gerstein reports: ?Asked whether the senator would permit release of the records to The New York Sun, Mr. Wade said, ?The issue is over.?”
But it isn?t. And it won?t be until the public has access to the SF-180 which procured release of the papers. Freedom of Information Act requests for it are now under way. Those requests will most likely be successful, perhaps as early as next week. And there is nothing barring its release before those requests are processed but John Kerry, and The Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe.
Michael Kranish, the Globe reporter who wrote the front page story about receiving Kerry?s ?complete medical and military records,? was not happy at being pursued by my questions about how he had made that determination. Kranish finally sent me the following: ?The story speaks for itself. Other media have been given access to the same records, and the Kerry office has said it is accepting requests. Your request should go to them. That is our statement.? It sounds more like a response from a lawyer than a reporter.
And The Boston Globe made several calls to editors at the Chicago Sun-Times, complaining that I was giving them the kind of unpleasant treatment reporters give sources who stonewall on questions about matters they think are of vital public interest. They were right. I was. And those questions got the Globe to admit they had the SF-180 two days later.
Perhaps now they will release it and even Kerry?s worst critics will find it in order and finally be silenced. In that case, David Wade may be right: ?The issue is over.?