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NewsMax screwup creates non-event controversy

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February 21, 2006

By LISA HOFFMAN

It was a simple plaque, the sort handed out every day on Capitol Hill by interest groups showing their appreciation for a legislator’s efforts on behalf of their cause.

In this case, it was the Military Order of the Purple Heart organization that presented an award to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., last Thursday.

The nonprofit group honored Clinton for her stewardship of measures calling for a commemorative Purple Heart postage stamp and the establishment of Aug. 7 as Purple Heart Recognition Day, as well as her advocacy for veterans’ health care.

But a story on the conservative media outlet NewsMax.com left the impression among some readers that Clinton had been awarded a Purple Heart medal itself by the group.

While the article described her award as "symbolic," its opening sentence implied otherwise. "New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has put in for a Purple Heart award _ and she received the decoration yesterday," the Friday story said.

Angry veterans erupted in protest.

No fans of Clinton to begin with, the upset vets pilloried the Purple Heart group, which is made up of recipients of the military’s heart-shaped award to those wounded or killed in combat.

"Of all people, is Jane Fonda next?" retired Marine John Cooney of Jacksonville, N.C., wrote via e-mail to the Purple Heart group after the NewsMax.com story appeared.

Others were outraged that a sacred decoration would be bestowed on someone who sacrificed no blood in war.

"What’s next, a Purple Heart for (Texas lawyer) Harry Whittington for being shot by (Vice President) Dick Cheney?" e-mailed Jesse Metheny, who describes himself as an Army infantry veteran.

The Purple Heart group, which calls itself the "keepers of the medal," couldn’t agree more.

Ray Funderburk, national public-relations director and a two-time Purple Heart recipient in the Vietnam War, said he shares outrage at the notion that his organization would be complicit in awarding the hallowed medal to anyone unqualified for it.

"The only way any person, including the (nation’s) commander in chief, can be given a Purple Heart is if he or she is wounded in combat by an instrument of war inflicted by the enemy," Funderburk said. "To think anyone would believe this organization would belittle or demean the sanctity of the Purple Heart by giving it to a civilian is totally unacceptable."

Clinton was the 15th recipient of the group’s "inspirational leadership award." Though aware of the enmity felt by many on the right toward Clinton, the organization decided she deserved recognition, not the least for her efforts since 2002 to get the U.S. Postal Service to issue a Purple Heart stamp and her recent successful push for the service to re-issue it when rates increased this year.

"Each year, Sen. Clinton has introduced legislation that recognizes August 7th as Purple Heart Recognition Day and encourages citizens to learn of the history and importance of America’s oldest military award," the group said in announcing the small Capitol Hill ceremony held for her Thursday at which she received the small wooden plaque.

Clinton’s office could not be reached for comment Monday. In a statement issued last Thursday, she said she appreciated the honor.

"I consider it a privilege and duty to work on behalf of combat-wounded active-duty service members and veterans, and I will continue to make them one of my top priorities," the statement said.

Funderburk criticized the NewsMax.com article for misrepresenting what the group had done. But NewsMax.com writer Carl Limbacher, who wrote the story, had no apologies and said reader reaction to his story "has been slim to none."

"My guess is that any controversy generated by my report was prompted more by the decision to give Hillary the award than by my coverage per se," Limbacher wrote in an e-mail.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)