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Former Sen. Bob Kerrey’s admission that his Navy unit killed innocent women and children in Vietnam 32 years ago is stunning.

But even more stunning is Newsweek’s decision not to publish it.

It’s an illustration of how establishment media editors and publishers play God with the truth. If he ran for president, it would be a story. If he’s a U.S. senator, it’s not a story. That’s a tough standard to justify.

Why?

It brings to mind Kerrey’s quirky decisions while serving in the Senate.

You might remember he was one of the early critics of the Clinton administration from within the Democratic Party. He’s the guy who said Clinton was “an unusually good liar.”

But Kerrey came back into the fold shortly thereafter and remained there throughout the rest of the Clinton years. He voted against impeachment, along with every other Democrat, you might recall.

Many of us who had worked to expose the broad pattern of Clinton administration corruption suspected and theorized that some members of the Senate in particular had been bought off while others had been successfully blackmailed by the White House.

What the Kerrey revelation shows is just how easy it would be for a president, armed with inside information of this kind, to pull his troops and his adversaries into line.

Bob Kerrey went from Medal of Honor hero to possible war criminal with this
one story. That’s a big jump — and one that any politician would want to
avoid if possible.

Am I suggesting that Kerrey was blackmailed?

I have no evidence to make such a claim. But that is precisely the reason that we as journalists are supposed to print what we know when we know it. Chances are good that when we find out some dirt, others already know it. And sometimes those others are in positions to use that information in ways that can shape public policy to their own benefit.

I just learned some details about the youthful indiscretions of a Republican member of Congress. Many wondered why this representative hadn’t run for the Senate or been chosen as a vice presidential candidate already. He seemed to have all the ingredients. What most people don’t know is that there are highly indiscreet yearbook photos of this official back in his “Animal House” days in college.

Could this be the reason his political career was stalled? Could this explain why he wasn’t more aggressive in exposing Clinton administration misdeeds? We’ll probably never know now.

But those are the reasons we disclose what we know when we know it in the Fourth Estate.

The Kerrey episode was hardly the first time Newsweek missed the boat. This was the same “news magazine” that somehow justified to itself not publishing the Monica Lewinsky story three years ago.

Kerrey himself admits being “haunted” by this episode throughout the last three decades. That should be reason enough for publishing the information. If a U.S. senator has a guilty conscience about actions in the past of this magnitude, the American public needs to know that. These folks are supposed to be accountable to us.

Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker said he decided not to run the story in 1999 because Kerrey would not cooperate. Gee, if that’s the standard I used in deciding whether or not to publicize investigative reports, few would ever see the light of day.

Some might be quick to attribute Newsweek’s poor judgment to political bias. It may have played a role. But there are other factors that weigh into the equation and other explanations of why the press as an institution is failing the public.

The principal role of a free press in a free society is to serve as a watchdog on government. This truism was understood by most members of my profession 30 years ago, 40 years ago, 100 years ago and certainly 200 years ago. It is a greatly overlooked fact today.

Ask the average journalist today about the principal role of the free press in a free society and you are likely to get a variety of answers that have nothing to do with watchdogging government.

Maybe Newsweek has learned this lesson, finally. If not, I predict Newsweek will not be in business much longer. The American people have more choices today for news than they had a decade ago. And they are not going to choose news sources that help conceal the skeletons in the closets of politicians.

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