August 25, 2004

The Swift Boat Liars smear.

Brought to you by the credulous and lazy US press, as ably demonstrated by Brian Montopoli, Thomas Lang, and Zachary Roth at Campaign Desk.

The initial ad by the swift boat vets came out in August, which had shaped up to be a slow news month, politically speaking. Issues like Kerry's health care plan weren't capturing viewers' imaginations, there hadn't been a terrorist attack or notable capture for months, and Iraq, continuing U.S. casualties notwithstanding, wasn't generating much new news. With its natural bias towards ratings-generating conflict, the media readily embraced the SBVFT story, which, with its harsh allegations and clearly demarcated opposing sides, had about it the smell of blood in the water.

As radio talk shows and cable shoutfests seized upon the "story," the few outlets that initially ignored it or gave it little play were forced to ratchet up their coverage -- a classic example of the elements of the media lower down the professional food chain effectively setting the news agenda. Yesterday, Alison Mitchell, deputy national editor of the New York Times, confessed to Editor & Publisher magazine that "I'm not sure that in an era of no cable television we would even have looked into it." And James O'Shea, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, fretted to E&P about feeling forced to follow a story that he might not otherwise bother with, just because it's gotten so much air time from the carnival barkers who populate daytime cable and radio.

That sort of thing could have been avoided had news organizations been more aggressive in exploring the SBVFT when it first organized. Last May, without much fanfare, SBVFT held a press conference announcing the group's formation and laying out its agenda. In an open letter to Sen. Kerry, the group wrote, "Further, we believe that you have withheld and/or distorted material facts as to your own conduct in this war," and in a press release let it be known that it intended to publicly examine Kerry's war record. That night, ABC and NBC ignored the development entirely on their nightly news broadcasts, while CBS provided a short report. On Fox News, political correspondent Carl Cameron delivered a report remarkable for its similarity to those seen on TV in recent weeks. He recapped comments from veterans both in support and critical of John Kerry, adding that some of the veterans who are now critical of Kerry previously supported him in 1996. According to Cameron, the Bush campaign denied any involvement in the attacks. Kerry, he said, was doing his best to stay out of the fray. And with that (after a few brief debates on "Hannity & Colmes"), the story went to bed.

In June and July, the press hardly moved the story an inch. By the time the SBVFT resurfaced in early August with its first ad, the story had lain fallow for three months. So the news reports that came out in the wake of the ad elaborated little on Cameron's original story. No news organization, it seems, had seen fit to launch a more thorough investigation into the veterans, despite their coming out party months before.

The "fog of war" can cloud newsrooms just as much as it does battlefields, of course. But given the SBVFT's open letter and virtual declaration of war on Kerry last spring, such investigations should have come as a matter of course.

Throughout August, even as the Swift vets' book hit bookstores and a second ad was rolled out, the campaign press mostly continued to frame the story as a "he said/she said" battle -- at least until last week, when what had been an oddly quiescent press corps lurched awake and began to subject the story to closer scrutiny. The New York Times and Washington Post published articles highly critical of the SBVFT earlier this week, and the Times today meticulously laid out the connections between the swift boat vets on the one hand and lawyers, political strategists and donors to the Bush campaign on the other.

After countless unchallenged segments on the cable news shows and print articles repeating a variety of erroneous SBVFT claims, the mainstream press had belatedly awakened from its summer dormancy and measured spurious claims against known facts. But it had come far too late.

Campaign Desk calls the Swift Boat non-issue one of the lowest points of media coverage of the US presidential election. This magpie has to agree.

While CJR's Campaign Desk sometimes misses the mark, they're hard to beat for dissecting the connections between bad reporting and the failure of reporters to ask questions when presented with spin. We read Campaign Desk every day. You should, too. (And if you haven't done so already, make sure to Make sure to go read today's entire Swift Boat article, rather than just taking in our excerpt).

Posted by Magpie at August 25, 2004 04:19 PM | US Politics | Technorati links |

I keep seeing different numbers on the vets as to who is pro-Kerry and who served on his swift boat with him. Does someone have the set in stone, actual numbers? How many of Kerry's crew support him publicly? How many of his crew oppose him publicly? I believe it is still fact that no one from his crew is part of the Republican SBVFT posse.

Posted by: Scott at August 25, 2004 05:12 PM

The Smear Boat Liars have really distinguished themselves in the art of gutter politics. Kerry needs someone, perhaps Michael Moore, to do a commercial, a big buy commercial, blasting these lying bastards. These men signed affidavits swearing to information they have no firsthand knowledge of. That bastard in the White House will not win this campaign via this route. It is disgraceful. And I want Kerry to hit him back HARD.

Posted by: Elizabeth at August 28, 2004 06:22 PM