I think press stories can sometimes declare someone is guilty by association. By association I mean where a person’s quote appears in a story.

Take, for example, this morning’s Dana Milbank’s analysis piece in this morning’s Washington Post about the Bush campaign’s low-life effort to say a vote for Kerry is a vote for terrorism.

This year, the accusations began at lower levels. In March, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told a group of Republicans: “If George Bush loses the election, Osama bin Laden wins the election.” Republicans say Democrats, while not suggesting Bush is guilty of treason, have indulged in questionable rhetoric themselves; they point to a tasteless performance at a Kerry fundraiser by performer Whoopi Goldberg (which the candidate did not disavow) and by Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), who on a visit to Baghdad two years ago defended Iraq and said Bush was misleading the public.

On Fox News, conservative commentator Ann Coulter said, “It’s unquestionable that Republicans are more likely to prevent the next attack.” Kerry, she said, “will improve the economy in the emergency services and body bag industry.”

Whatever the merits, the charges that terrorists prefer Democrats have been echoed by independent commentators and journalists. CNN analyst Bill Schneider, asked about Hastert’s remarks, agreed that al Qaeda “would very much like to defeat President Bush.”

Sure, Milbank calls Bill Schneider an “independent commentator” but Milbank must know that Schneider is considered by many to be biased. Putting his comment next to Ann Coulter, a certifiable nut case, I think was done by Milbank with a wink and a nod.

Milbank surely knows that CJR’s Campaign Desk pointed out that Schneider is anything but.

First, Schneider — whose own credentials as a “neutral” include his employment as a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a book co-authored with the now largely discredited foreign policy analyst Richard Perle — makes clear that he agrees with Hastert. Al Qaeda, Schneider says, “would very much like to defeat President Bush.” Schneider, like Hastert, can believe whatever he wants. But in his alleged role as a supposed non-partisan analyst, he might think twice before endorsing a charge as incendiary as Hastert’s in front of millions of viewers.

To be sure, in the latter part of his comments, Schneider seemed to realize this, and tacked abruptly to the left, claiming that Hastert was merely trying to argue that, in the event of a terror attack before the election, voters would rally around the president. That’s a far cry from saying that al Qaeda wants Kerry to win. Unfortunately, it’s also a far cry from what Hastert actually said. In short, after first endorsing what Hastert had to say, Schneider completely reinvented Hastert’s point — to make it seem less objectionable.

More than one John Kerry partisan has argued that al Qaeda might want President Bush re-elected, given that his prosecution of the war on terror has been a boon to terrorist recruitment efforts. But it’s hard to imagine a “neutral” political analyst on any major news outlet feeling confident enough to express agreement with such a darkly conspiratorial view. For some reason, though, the reverse is perfectly acceptable.