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."

But the big news on August 6 was that Regnery allowed people to download the "Christmas in Cambodia" section of O'Neill's book. While Olbermann and others were worrying about mystical jazz, the new media swung into action. Hugh Hewitt, Glenn Reynolds, Powerline, and other bloggers immediately began investigating the book's allegations. The blog JustOneMinute was the first to find the 1986 "seared--seared" speech in which Kerry described his memory of being in Cambodia in December 1968. On August 8, Reynolds took his digital camera to the University of Tennessee law library and photographed the section of the Congressional Record with the Kerry speech, further verifying the chapter's central claim. That same weekend, Al Hunt talked about the Swift boat ad on CNN's Capital Gang, calling it "some of the sleaziest lies I've ever seen in politics."

Over the next 11 days, an interesting dynamic took hold: Talk-radio and the blog world covered the Cambodia story obsessively. They reported on border crossings during Vietnam and the differences between Swift boats and PBRs. They also found two other instances of Kerry's talking about his Christmas in Cambodia. Spurred on by the blogs, Fox led the August 9 Special Report with a Carl Cameron story on Kerry's Cambodia discrepancy.

All the while, traditional print and broadcast media tried hard to ignore the story--even as Kerry officially changed his position on his presence in Cambodia. Then on August 19, Kerry went public with his counter assault against Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and suddenly the story was news. The numbers are fairly striking: Before August 19, the New York Times and Washington Post had each mentioned Swift Boat Veterans for Truth just 8 times; the Los Angeles Times 7 times; the Boston Globe 4 times. The broadcast networks did far less. According to the indefatigable Media Research Center, before Kerry went public, ABC, CBS, and NBC together had done a total of 9 stories on the Swifties. For comparison, as of August 19 these networks had done 75 stories on the accusation that Bush had been AWOL from the National Guard.

After Kerry, the deluge. On August 24, the Washington Post ran three op-eds and an editorial on the Swifties; other papers expanded their coverage as well. But, curiously, they didn't try to play catch-up with the new media in ascertaining the veracity of the Swifties' claims. Instead, they pursued (or rather, repeated) the charge Kerry made: that Bush was behind Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. It was a touch surreal--as it would have been if Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe's criticism of Bush's National Guard record had prompted the media to investigate Terry McAuliffe.

But even here, it seemed their hearts weren't in it. In Time magazine, Joe Klein called the whole affair "incendiary nonsense." As the Los Angeles Times observed in an editorial, "Whether the Bush campaign is tied to the Swift boat campaign in the technical, legal sense that triggers the wrath of the campaign-spending reform law is not a very interesting question." As last week wore on, the coverage continued to ignore the specifics of the allegations against Kerry and began to concentrate on the dangers of the new media. In the New York Times, Alessandra Stanley warned that in the seedy world of cable news, "facts, half-truths and passionately tendentious opinions get tumbled together on screen like laundry in an industrial dryer--without the softeners of fact-checking or reflection." It is perhaps impolite to note that it took the Times nearly four months to catch up with the reporting Carl Cameron did in the beginning of May.

STILL, the baying of the Times and the rest of the old media is a sign of capitulation. Against their will, the best-funded and most prestigious journalists in America have been forced to cover a story they want no part of--or at the very least, they've been compelled to explain why they aren't covering it. How did this happen? Analyzing how the Swift boat veterans had injected their story into the mainstream media, Adam Nagourney blamed summer. The Swift boat ad buys, he wrote, had "become the subject of television news shows . . . because the advertisements and [Unfit for Command] were released in August, a slow month when news outlets are hungry for any kind of news."

But Nagourney has it exactly backwards: Even though it was August, network television and most cable news shows stayed away from the Swift boat story for as long as they possibly could.

Instead, James O'Shea is right. An informal network--the new media--has arisen that has the power to push stories into the old media. The combination of talk radio, a publishing house, blogs, and Fox News has given conservatives a voice independent of the old media.

It's unclear which of these was most critical for bringing the Swift boat story out into the open. Without Unfit for Command, the story would never have had a focal point with readily checkable facts. Talk radio kept the story alive on a daily basis. The blogs served as fact-checkers vetting the story, at least some aspects of it, for credibility and chewing it over enough so that producers and editors who read the blogs could approach it without worrying they were being snookered by black-helicopter nuts. Despite all that, however, no other medium has the reach of television, which is still the only way to move a story from a relatively small audience of news-obsessives to the general public.

Yet the blogosphere has had a particular interest in taking credit for making the Swift boat story pop. Blogs from Instapundit to The Belmont Club to Powerline were reveling in the demise of the old media and heaping scorn upon professional journalists. "I have been both a lawyer/law professor for two decades and a television/radio/print journalist for 15 years of those 20," Hugh Hewitt blogged. "It takes a great deal more intelligence and discipline to be the former than to be the latter, which is why the former usually pays a lot more than the latter. It is no surprise to me, then, when lawyers/law professors like those at Powerline and Instapundit prove to be far more adept at exposing the 'Christmas-in-Cambodia' lie and other Kerry absurdities than old-school journalists."

John Hinderaker, one of the bloggers behind Powerline, summed up the mood of the blogosphere by comparing journalism with brain surgery: "A bunch of amateurs, no matter how smart and enthusiastic, could never outperform professional neurosurgeons, because they lack the specialized training and experience necessary for that field," he said. "But what qualifications, exactly, does it take to be a journalist? What can they do that we can't? Nothing."

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.