WASHINGTON - August 30 - A group of Vietnam veterans called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have managed to dominate campaign coverage recently with a series of inaccurate and unfounded allegations about John Kerry's Vietnam War service. But instead of debunking the group's TV ads and numerous media appearances, the press corps has devoted hours of broadcast time and considerable print attention to the group's message.
At times, some reporters seem to suggest that the Swift Boat coverage is being driven by some external force that they cannot control. "The ad war, at least over John Kerry's service in Vietnam, has for the moment effectively blocked out everything else," explained MSNBC's David Shuster (8/23/04)-- as if the media are not the ones responsible for deciding which issues were being "blocked out."
The New York Times similarly noted (8/20/04) that the group "catapulted itself to the forefront of the presidential campaign," while Fox News reporter Carl Cameron (8/23/04) suggested that "the controversy has completely knocked Kerry off message, and the political impasse suggests the story is not going away any time soon."
That "impasse" is largely the result of the media's failure to sufficiently compare the Swift Boat charges to the available military records and eyewitness accounts. Even a cursory examination of the available evidence reveals fatal flaws in the group's charges, which fly in the face of all documentary evidence, and the testimony of almost every person present when Kerry earned his medals.
Larry Thurlow, the Swift Boat Vet who claims that Kerry was not under enemy fire when he earned his Bronze Star, himself earned a Bronze Star for actions under enemy fire in the same incident. Louis Letson, who claims to have treated the wound that earned Kerry his first Purple Heart, is not the medic listed in medical records as having treated Kerry. John O'Neill, the leader of the group, has said that Kerry would have been "court-martialed" had he crossed the border into Cambodia-- but O'Neill is on tape telling President Richard Nixon that he himself had been in Cambodia. Several members of the group are on the record praising Kerry's leadership. And so on.
Imagine that the situation were reversed: What if all available documentary records showed that George W. Bush had completed his stint in the Air National Guard with flying colors? What if virtually every member of his unit said he had been there the whole time, and had done a great job? Suppose a group of fiercely partisan Democrats who had served in the Guard at the same time came forward to say that the documents and the first-hand testimony were wrong, and that Bush really hadn't been present for his Guard service. Would members of the press really have a hard time figuring out who was telling the truth in this situation? And how much coverage would they give to the Democrats' easily discredited charges?
But when Kerry is the target of the attacks, many journalists seem content to monitor the flow of charges and counter-charges, passing no judgment on the merits of the accusations but merely reporting how they seem to affect the tone of the campaign. As the Associated Press put it (8/24/04), Kerry "has been struggling in recent days against charges-- denounced by Democrats as smear tactics -- that he lied about his actions in Vietnam that won five military medals." Credible charges or smears? AP's readers could only use their own personal opinions of Democrats to judge.
To CNN, even the awarding of the medals became a matter of debate: "They're not just attacking the medals that John Kerry might have won," reporter Daryn Kagan said of the Swift Boat Vets (8/24/04).
The notion that reporters cannot pass some reasonable judgment about the ads was common. "There is no way that journalism can satisfy those who think that Kerry is a liar or that Swift Boat Veterans For Truth are liars," asserted NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving (NPR.org, 8/25/04).
When asked if the Swift Boat ads, along with other ads critical of Bush, were accurate, CNN's Bill Schneider (8/24/04) demurred: "I don't have an answer because I haven't systematically looked at all those ads. Certainly, the Swift Boat Veterans' ads-- that first ad has been looked at with great care. And what the Washington Post concluded on Sunday was those allegations have remained unproved." At this point, the 60-second ad had been a major political controversy for weeks-- and CNN's senior political analyst couldn't find the time to figure out whether it was accurate or not?
An editorial in the L.A. Times (8/24/04) noted that the problem is not that reporters can't say whether the charges are true-- it's that they don't want to say: "The canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false. As a result, the voters are left with a general sense that there is some controversy over...Kerry's service in Vietnam."
One suspects that the "canons of the profession" would be interpreted differently if, for example, Republican Sen. John McCain was the target of similarly unsubstantiated charges about his military service from a partisan Democratic group.
And the editorial went on to fall prey to another journalistic convention-- finding blame on both sides, even when only one side is at fault-- when it equated the Swift Boat Vets with "MoveOn.org, which is running nasty ads about Bush's avoidance of service in Vietnam."
Just as the Swift Boat Vets are "funded by conservative groups that interlock with Bush's world in various ways," the L.A. Times said MoveOn is "part of Kerry's general milieu," and "either man could shut down the groups working on his behalf if he wanted to." The only difference that the editorial acknowledged is that while the MoveOn campaign is ''nasty and personal,'' the Swift Boat Vets ads are ''nasty, personal and false.''
Never mind that MoveOn is a grassroots organization with 2 million members, founded in 1998 when Kerry was merely the junior senator from Massachusetts, while the Swift Boat Vets have no more independent existence than the ''Republicans for Clean Air,'' which attacked McCain in the 2000 primaries and then disappeared.
But to many journalists, finding some way to criticize both sides is much easier-- and politically safer-- than examining evidence to try to determine the truth. CNN's Candy Crowley (8/6/04), for example, said to Kerry political director Steve Elmendorf: "There have been ads out there that have compared the president to Hitler, that have been really, really tough ads." That comparison makes little sense, though; the Hitler "ads" were submissions by individuals to MoveOn's ad contest, and were removed from the group's website when they were discovered.
Another way of drawing a false equivalence is by talking about the "negativity" of both sides. CNN's John Mercurio (CNN.com, 8/20/04) wrote that Kerry's comments responding to the Swift Boat charges "were notable--if only because they revealed how negative, and how responsive, both campaigns have become this year." One would think, rather, that they showed how negative one campaign was and how responsive the other was.
Jim Rutenberg and Kate Zernike of the New York Times wrote a similar article (8/22/04), lamenting that while "this was supposed to be the positive campaign," both sides have discovered that "negative ads work." As evidence, the reporters noted that "Bush has spent the majority of the more than $100 million he has spent on television advertisements attacking his Democratic opponent."
This is presumably a reference to a Washington Post survey (5/31/04) that found that 75 percent of Bush's ads were negative. Not mentioned, however, was the Post's finding in the same story that Kerry's ads were only 27 percent negative.
Including that fact would have spoiled the premise of the article, that the sin of negativity is committed equally by both sides. But sometimes the truth is not somewhere in the middle.