BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. On Monday, the New York Times, working with CBS, broke a story suggesting that Bush administration war planners left bunkers of hundreds of tons of explosives unguarded in post-Saddam Iraq. That material is now missing, much of it, presumably, in the hands of the enemy. Actually, there have been many documented accounts of plundered weapons dumps, so Republicans are suspicious of the timing, but whatever the case, the story has what's known in the biz as "traction." Thus, the final week of Campaign 2004 was, if not explosive, at least about explosives. [TAPE PLAYS]
JOHN KERRY: You owe America real answers about what happened -- not just political attacks. [CHEERS, APPLAUSE] [TAPE ENDS] [TAPE PLAYS]
GEORGE W. BUSH: The senator is denigrating the action of our troops and commanders in the field without knowing the facts. [TAPE ENDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the facts are obscured in the fog of election war. On Monday, NBC reported that its embeds arrived with the 101st Airborne Division at the site on April 10th, 2003 and found no explosives. The White House held up the NBC story as Exhibit A in its defense. "Not so fast," said NBC's Tom Brokaw on Tuesday. [TAPE PLAYS]
TOM BROKAW: For its part, the Bush campaign immediately pointed to our report as conclusive proof that the weapons had been removed before the Americans arrived. That is possible, but that is not what we reported. [TAPE ENDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From there, the story shifted from moment to moment. The explosives weren't there to begin with; the explosives were there, but were taken care of. Matt Drudge posted one Pentagon official's speculation that the Russians had taken them before the war. Fox News sided reliably with the administration. The other cable channels were all over the map. Then, an ABC affiliate in Minneapolis weighed in with video from April 18th, 2003 of soldiers at a bunker breaking UN seals off boxes of explosives, but not securing the site. [TAPE PLAYS]]
CORRESPONDENT: Based on the descriptions of the material in question in the video that we brought you tonight, the explosives may or may not be the material, the explosives in question. [TAPE ENDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Thursday, former chief weapons inspector David Kay viewed that footage and declared on CNN that those were official IAEA seals. Those boxes certainly held some of the missing explosives. But not so fast, again. On Friday, a soldier took the podium at a Pentagon press conference and said he personally carted off tons of dangerous stuff. Whether, however, it was the material in question still isn't clear. Reporters were confused. Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita. [TAPE PLAYS]
LAWRENCE DI RITA: I get that. You guys really want the definitive answer. And so do we. The, the difference is that w-- that takes understanding facts, and we have tried to uncover facts over the last week, at a point, after which many people thought they had the definitive answer. And we simply do not. [TAPE ENDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Houston - or, should I say, Cleveland, since it's in a swing state - Cleveland: we have a problem. A big story on election eve we just don't have time to understand. Josh Marshall runs a widely-read website that takes a critical line on Bush called TalkingPointsMemo.com. He's been following the story and coverage in excruciating detail. He joins us now. Josh, welcome to the show.
JOSH MARSHALL: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems that, depending what channel you tune in, you can get whatever story you want.
JOSH MARSHALL: You're quite right. If you listen to Fox, you are in just a different fact universe than if you read the New York Times. I think the difference is, is that Fox has a strong sense of editorially where they want to go. They want to side with the administration. And so their take on this has been fairly consistent throughout. MSNBC and CNN, I think, don't have that pre-ordained flight path, as it were, and they have been buffeted by the different theories that have been thrown out by the administration, by the different news outlets, by the Kerry campaign. The process works if you look back three weeks out or a month out or six months out and say, you know, how did it all shake out? What did the facts end up being? The problem is, as the stories unfold over 24 hour news cycles, the side that is just throwing up all sorts of bogus stories and misinformation, they get as much play as the sort of factual reporting that has already been done.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This has been a campaign in which a fact doesn't stay a fact for very long, and once a fact is disproved about somebody's record, for instance, it comes back again in the next speech and is re-established again only to be slammed down again. Is it possible, when it really matters, to actually nail this story down -- or any story?
JOSH MARSHALL: I think what you're saying is exactly right, and when I said that the cacophony of voices shakes out to a relatively accurate version of things, that doesn't excuse how bad the journalism often is in the short term. What is running right now on CNN and MSNBC and Fox, that is what is really important in terms of shaping people's understanding of what is happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The interview that follows the one that we're doing is about the strategy of the Bush-Cheney campaign to shoot the messenger, as it were. Do you think there's something of that at work in this case?
JOSH MARSHALL: Oh, that's certainly the strategy. During the whole Lewinsky scandal, that was part of the strategy of the Clinton administration. They were looking at the people who were behind the story, trying to discredit it by discrediting the messengers. In this case, I think that strategy will be successful for the White House in reassuring their base voters. However, that's not really what the issue is in campaign terms. The issue is really swing voters, and I don't think that will be particularly persuasive to swing voters unless and until the White House has a factual argument -- not just "don't believe this because it's the New York Times and CBS," but "here's why it's wrong."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One last question. Every issue, no matter how unrelated to the campaign, is now a campaign issue. That's the way it's reported in the majority of the stories. The stories about the details tend to be deeper in the papers or in sidebars. So what do you think -- do you think that the timing of the story couldn't be worse?
JOSH MARSHALL: For the White House?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For the story.
JOSH MARSHALL: Probably for the facts of the story coming out in as clear and as accurate a way as possible, it is not good timing for the story. If this had happened a year ago, the tension in the air and the need to get the story right quickly would not be there. On the other hand, if the story is true, it is more relevant for it to be known to the public before the election than after the election. So I think it sort of depends on the standard by which you judge it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Josh, thank you very much.
JOSH MARSHALL: Well, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Josh Marshall writes for the Washington Monthly and The Hill. He's also the author of the blog TalkingPointsMemo.com.