In a damage control piece Thursday, Associated Press writer Kimberly Helfing attempted to portray Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha's last-minute use of high-profile advisor Tony Podesta as "shoring up" his support, characterized accusations directed at residents of his district as only targeting "some" of them, and failed to mention Murtha's opponent until the fifth paragraph.
The facts are that Murtha is not clearly ahead in the polls (ahead by not much here, behind by more here), that he may very well be behind in reality against challenger William Russell, and that Murtha directed his "racist" characterization at 12th District residents in general, not just "some" of them.
Here are the key paragraphs from Helfing's report:
Rep. John Murtha brought in a high-profile adviser and scrambled to raise money to shore up support against a GOP challenger who has gained momentum since Murtha said some residents of his western Pennsylvania home base were racist.
Tony Podesta, Pennsylvania manager for Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid and former President Clinton's 1996 re-election, said he drove to Murtha's hometown of Johnstown, Pa., on Monday. He described Murtha as a friend under attack and said he offered suggestions as a volunteer.
Murtha, a powerful 17-term Democrat, is being challenged by William Russell, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who moved from Virginia to Johnstown to run against him.
Murtha was considered safe for re-election until he recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "There is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area." He apologized, but then later told WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh, that "this whole area, years ago, was really redneck."
This week, Murtha - a decorated Vietnam veteran - sent out a fundraising appeal to the e-mail list of the liberal group MoveOn.org with the subject title "late breaking threat." He said because of his opposition to the Iraq war, he was a victim of "swiftboating."
- Murtha's description of Western Pennsylvania as "a racist area" isn't criticizing "some" residents, as Helfing claimed in the opening of her piece. It was clearly a generalized statement meant to apply to all of them.
- It's interesting that Murtha believes that MoveOn's mail list members won't be particularly bothered by his outrageous "racist" and "redneck" remarks. He's probably right. While they'll examine everystatement from a Republican in search of racist "code words" (like "tax cuts" and "community organizers"), a goodly number of MoveOn folks don't think anyhone from their party can be racist, even when they make obviously racist remarks.
- Murtha use of the term "swiftboating" is laughable, except in the sense that the word really refers to "telling the truth about Democrats," as the SwiftVets did with John Kerry in 2004.
If a GOP incumbent had made similar remarks and was in similar reelection trouble, the headlines would be more along the lines of "Incumbent GOP congressman's racist remarks have him trailing challenger." But the AP has a party to protect; Helfing is just doing her job.