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You Can Report, but We Will Decide
Published on Tuesday, August 24, 2004 by the Los Angeles Times
You Can Report, But We Will Decide
The Conservative Media's Handling of the Swift Boat Dispute is a Case Study in Bias
by Ben Wasserstein
 

Last Thursday, the Washington Post reported that the military records of Larry Thurlow, one of John Kerry's major accusers among the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, contradicted Thurlow's version of events and confirmed Kerry's. At the very least, this cast severe doubt on the charge that Kerry fabricated the events that earned him one of his Vietnam War medals.

The conservative media had been pushing the fabrication story energetically. How did it deal with this new evidence undermining it? As it turns out, at almost every turn it soft-pedaled the new evidence or outright ignored it, showing its bias throughout.

On March 13, 1969, Kerry commanded one of five Navy Swift boats in a raid up the Bay Hap River and won a Bronze Star for actions under enemy fire. Thurlow commanded one of the other boats, and he has claimed in constant media rounds that there was no enemy fire. But, as the Post reported, Thurlow also won a Bronze Star that day, and the citation that accompanied it referred to "enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire" directed at "all units."

Thurlow's current story casts doubt on his own Bronze Star as much as Kerry's. Thurlow's explanation is that his citation's record of the events must have been based on Kerry's and that the information must have been provided by Kerry himself. There is an "after-action report" that Thurlow and John E. O'Neill, coauthor of the anti-Kerry book "Unfit for Command," refer to as "Kerry's report" despite the fact that it bears the initials KJW. (Later news stories have pointed out that Thurlow's Bronze Star citation refers to a witness to the enemy fire Thurlow's crewmate, Robert Lambert and that the KJW initials are also on reports about events Kerry was not involved in.)

No one has so far challenged the Washington Post's facts. Not that you'd know that if you were watching or listening to or reading conservative media outlets. Rupert Murdoch's New York Post ran Thurlow's charge that Kerry lied to get his medal. On Friday, the day after the Washington Post story poked a hole in that contention, the New York Post ran a teeny story focusing only on Kerry's decision to counterattack against a "tough anti-Kerry TV ad." The Wall Street Journal editorial page and its website, OpinionJournal, also said nothing about the new evidence.

The conservative Washington Times did report the Post's Thurlow scoop in a news article. It also ran Part 3 of its series excerpting the book "Unfit for Command," and the excerpt on Friday included Thurlow's contention that there was no hostile fire on March 13, 1969. In his column on Kerry, Washington Times Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden wrote, "The monsieur's friends at The Washington Post attempted to muddy the waters for him yesterday," and then Pruden approvingly restated Thurlow's assertions and his explanation for the discrepancy. An unsigned editorial called on the media to investigate the after-action report.

The leading serious conservative journal, the Weekly Standard, posted a new issue online Friday with a cover story titled "The Kerry Wars." The story cited the Washington Post article and admitted that "the documentary evidence available so far backs Kerry's story," but its paragraph dealing with the accusations that Kerry lied to get his medals concludes that "such claims boil down to Kerry's word versus his opponents'." That ignores the witnesses who back Kerry's story. It also ignores the pesky documentary evidence that supports Kerry's version of events.

On TV and radio, all the action came Thursday. On the Fox News Channel, the afternoon news show, "Studio B With Shepard Smith," offered a three-minute report on the "ongoing spat" over Kerry's military record without mentioning the new evidence about Thurlow's contradictions. The imbroglio over Kerry's Vietnam record led "The Big Story With John Gibson" and, again, not once in the five-minute segment was the Thurlow discrepancy discussed.

Next came Fox's "Special Report With Brit Hume," which opened with the teaser: "And despite Navy records, the dispute goes on about whether Kerry earned one of his medals under fire or not." Addressing the claims in the Washington Post article, there was a pre-taped interview with O'Neill, who asserted that Thurlow's "Bronze Star citation is based on the report that John Kerry wrote." The fact that there is no evidence that Kerry wrote that report was not mentioned. Military analyst Bill Cowan appeared to answer questions like, "If you yourself wrote an after-action report would that be taken into consideration?" This discussion of Kerry's alleged report left no time for comment on the controversy over whether Thurlow deserved his Bronze Star and why he waited so long to examine the citation's language.

Later, on the "Fox Report With Shepard Smith," Laurie Dhue introduced a segment about Kerry's reaction to the ads of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The report made no mention of Thurlow or the Post's story. Half an hour into the show, a second Kerry segment mentioned the Post story and summarized it in a fair-minded way. This was the first "fair and balanced" treatment of the story after hours of derision or avoidance on Fox.

John Kasich was guest host of "The O'Reilly Factor" on Thursday, and Thurlow himself phoned in to address the Post's story. To his credit, Kasich hammered Thurlow with questions, making the common-sense point, "You know, if I got a citation that said I saved somebody and it wasn't that way, I don't know, maybe I would attempt to correct the record." Thurlow just repeated that there had been no enemy fire and that Kerry had written the report on which the citation was based. He wasn't asked for evidence.

Kasich's next guest, Dick Morris, a former Clinton advisor turned Fox news analyst, explained the Washington Post story this way: "Obviously what's happening is the Democratic Party sent their negative research people on all of these guys that are in the Swift boat ad, trying to discredit them, and then came up with this citation."

There is no evidence that the Post story came out of any Democratic opposition research. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and its ads, by contrast, have been traced to conservative interest groups and funding.

Following "O'Reilly," "Hannity & Colmes" tackled the Thurlow story with O'Neill as their guest (they said the Kerry campaign declined to send a representative). O'Neill said he knew Kerry had prepared the report that the citations were based on "because anybody reading it with practical knowledge would know that" and because other officers such as Thurlow said that Kerry often wrote after-action reports. "There's not a bullet hole in any of those three boats, not one," he said, offering no documentation. (The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that a report on "battle damage" to Thurlow's boat made reference to "three 30 cal bullet holes about super structure.")

Meanwhile, on the radio, Rush Limbaugh offered a master class in turning the Washington Post's story into an indictment of Kerry. In his opening monologue, Limbaugh said that to vote for Kerry, one would "have to accept only what he tells us about his service record." That left out the small matter of the accounts from his crewmates, Kerry's war record and Thurlow's war record.

Later in his monologue, Limbaugh chased down the same byway as the Washington Times, saying that the real issue was whether Kerry had signed the after-action reports and conveniently ignoring that there was zero evidence he had done so: "I think this Post story today is amateur journalism. The fact that Thurlow's citation says this or that is proof of absolutely nothing till we find out who cited it, who actually filled in the blanks."

Ignoring all the evidence in Kerry's favor, Limbaugh later said: "We haven't got any evidence because the Kerry campaign won't come forth and defend any of this." In a speech that day, Kerry directly addressed the charges against him by asking people to look at his record. But Limbaugh repeatedly asserted: "He won't face this. He runs from it," and "he won't answer the charges."

By the end of the program, it seemed as though the revelations about Thurlow gave Limbaugh more confidence in the Swift Vets' account.

"How come it's causing so much angst? It's because it's true, probably," Limbaugh said. "We're supposed to believe what [the Kerry campaign says]. Because their attitude is, if we say it, it's true, if the other guys say it, it's a lie, believe us."

That attitude, with its blithe dismissal of opposing evidence, perfectly describes the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and its enablers in the right-wing media. What proof there is supports Kerry, and yet to the right-wing media the burden of proof falls on him.

Thurlow's explanation is accepted readily the KJW after-action report becomes "Kerry's report," and the contention that Thurlow's citation is derived from Kerry's self-glorifying lies becomes a given. The member of Thurlow's own crew who served as the eyewitness for Thurlow's citation is not mentioned. Only once, when Thurlow was interviewed on "The O'Reilly Factor," was the unlikelihood of a man not knowing for 35 years exactly why he received a Bronze Star even mentioned.

Perhaps sensing that some truths really are self-evident, on Friday the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth changed tactics from denigrating Kerry's Vietnam record to distorting his antiwar record. According to a Nexis search, Thurlow's name was not uttered all day on the Fox News Channel.

Ben Wasserstein is a writer in New York.

Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times

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