The Magazine

The Not-So-Swift Mainstream Media

From the September 6, 2004 issue: And how they were forced to cover a story they hated.

Sep 6, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 48 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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DURING THE AUGUST 19 edition of PBS's NewsHour, Tom Oliphant unspooled. "The standard of clear and convincing evidence--and it's easy when you leave out the exculpatory stuff--is what keeps this story in the tabloids," the Boston Globe columnist sputtered, "because it does not meet basic standards." "This story" (shades of "that woman") is the story of the Swift boat veterans who have raised a number of troubling allegations against John Kerry. Sitting across from John O'Neill, coauthor of Unfit for Command and John Kerry's successor as commander of PCF-94 in Vietnam, Oliphant did a fair imitation of Al Gore--sighing, harumphing, and exhaling loudly--whenever O'Neill spoke.

"'Almost conclusive' doesn't cut it in the parts of journalism where I live," Oliphant lectured O'Neill, who graduated first in a class of 554 from the University of Texas Law School and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court justice William Rehnquist. "You haven't come within a country mile of meeting first-grade journalistic standards for accuracy." Watching the media's reaction to the Swift boat controversy, it's clear that many journalists agree with Oliphant.

Two days later, Adam Nagourney paused in the middle of a news story in the New York Times to worry about how campaigns should deal with attacks "in this era when so much unsubstantiated or even false information can reach the public through so many different forums, be it blogs or talk-show radio." In an article in Editor & Publisher, Alison Mitchell, the deputy national editor at the Times, admitted, "I'm not sure that in an era of no-cable television we would even have looked into [the Swift boat story]." James O'Shea, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, went further: "There are too many places for people to get information. I don't think newspapers can be the gatekeepers anymore--to say this is wrong and we will ignore it. Now we have to say this is wrong and here is why."

There are many reasons why the mainstream media don't like the Swift boat story, but chief among them is that they've been strong-armed into covering it by the "new" media: talk-radio, cable television, and Internet blogs.

The Swift boat story first surfaced on May 4, when an op-ed by John O'Neill ran in the Wall Street Journal, in print and online, and the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, to which O'Neill belongs, held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The event received scant notice by traditional media. CBS News mentioned it briefly and tried to tie the group to Bush. The Washington Post and New York Times had short items about it, as did the Boston Globe. The most in-depth coverage came from the Fox News Channel. On the May 4 edition of Special Report, Carl Cameron reported on the press conference, aired some of the Swifties' allegations, and then reported that certain of these veterans--Grant Hibbard and George Elliott--had previously supported John Kerry, immediately casting doubt on them.

The story went away for a while, but was always lurking in dark corners of the Internet, on websites like KerryHaters.blogspot.com. And clearly the big media weren't blind to it. "There are a few who served with him who dispute his record and question his leadership," Peter Jennings noted during an ABC News broadcast on July 29. "We'll hear from them in the weeks ahead," he continued, moving abruptly on to a pretaped package on Kerry's Vietnam heroism.

The next big break for the Swifties came on August 4, with the release of their first TV ad. Fox News covered the ad closely. The next night Hannity & Colmes featured members of the Swift boat group as well as veterans who supported Kerry.

That same day some print media outlets covered the ad buy, but not the substance of the ad's allegations. On television, only one broadcast network mentioned the spot: CBS spent two sentences on the "harsh" ad, in order to air John McCain's denunciation of it.

On August 6, NBC also reported on the "harsh" ad, but only as a way of segueing into a segment on "527 groups," independent political organizations funded with soft money. On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann mentioned O'Neill's forthcoming Unfit for Command. Since it's published by the conservative house Regnery, Olbermann reported, "you now bring in the whole mystical right-wing conspiracy jazz." The night before, Olbermann had repeatedly referred to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth as "Swift Boat Veterans for Bush."