PLYING THE MEDIA WITH LIES. Media Log is still technically on vacation. But I've been catching up on the news following a three-day backpacking trip last week, and I continue to be astounded at what's happening to John Kerry's presidential campaign.
The media have not necessarily done a horrible job of covering the claims of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Indeed, if it weren't for news orgs such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, it might not be as clear as it already is that the vets' claims consist of nothing but ugly lies.
Still, editors and news directors should consider that the way they practice journalism allowed the lies to circulate and propagate, putting John Kerry's presidential campaign on the defensive and costing him a few points in the polls heading into the Republican National Convention.
The outrageous claims of the Swiftvets - that one of Kerry's Purple Heart wounds was self-inflicted, that he and his crew weren't really under fire when he rescued James Rassmann and won the Bronze Star, that he executed a Vietnamese kid in a loincloth in winning the Silver Star (it was actually a Viet Cong soldier with a grenade-launcher) - should have been treated as presumptively untrue from Day One.
You didn't have to do any investigative reporting to know that the official military records backed up Kerry's version of events (no, military records aren't perfect, but they're not meaningless, either), and that Kerry's hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, had investigated his military record extensively on at least two separate occasions, in 1996 and again in 2003. Right-wing conspiracy theories aside, there is zero evidence that the Globe has ever tried to cut Kerry any slack. Plus there is the fact that all but one of the men with whom Kerry actually served support Kerry's version of events. (How deep is the lying? The very fact that the Swiftvets say they "served with Kerry" is itself a lie.)
The invaluable contribution that the Times and the Post made was to show that in many cases the Swiftvets had changed their stories over the years from pro-Kerry to anti-Kerry, and that some of them claimed to have witnessed events that they could not have.
But the Swiftvets and their shadowy backers understood something about the media: if you make an accusation, news orgs will cover it, get a response from the person or persons being accused, and run with it. Truth isn't the issue, at least not in day-to-day campaign coverage. Getting both sides is the name of the game, even if there isn't a single reason to believe one side and every reason to believe the other.
The only charge raised against Kerry that seems to be sticking at all is that he falsely claimed to have been in Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968 - a charge that has gained resonance because Kerry once mistakenly stated that Richard Nixon was president at that time. But as the historian Douglas Brinkley has said, Kerry was involved in extremely dangerous missions in and around the Cambodian border during that time period. It is curious, to say the least, that Kerry-haters are willing to overlook blatant lies by the Swiftvets about where they were and what they saw while pillorying Kerry for misremembering the timing of events that actually occurred.
Yesterday brought a brief flurry of new excitement in the form of a Robert Novak column reporting that retired rear admiral William Schachte - who's not a member of the Swiftvets group - was continuing to claim that he was present when Kerry "nicked" himself and therefore unjustly won his first Purple Heart. Yet we already have the testimony of others who were there that Schachte was not. As the Times recently reported, Patrick Runyon and Bill Zaladonis insist they were the only crew members with Kerry when the incident occurred. "Me and Bill aren't the smartest, but we can count to three," Runyon was quoted as saying. But you know the game: Novak reports, you decide, even if you don't have the background to make an informed analysis as to who's telling the truth.
As always, Bob Somerby has been invaluable in dissecting the lies of the Swiftvets, and of the pathetically poor preparation that cable-news hosts have brought to the table when they have interviewed them - even those who suspect that the vets are lying, like MSNBC's Chris Matthews. (If he'd do his homework, he'd know they're lying.)
Kerry, I think, is making one serious mistake. He has denounced the lies of the Swiftvets, as he should. But by going after the ties between the Swiftvets and the Bush-Cheney campaign - ties that became all too apparent with the resignation of Bush water-carrier Benjamin Ginsberg - Kerry is playing George W. Bush's game.
Rather than denounce his supporters' lies, Bush has attempted to turn the entire issue into one of the 527s, the independent political organizations running negative ads on both sides. Kerry won a victory with Ginsberg's self-immolation. But if it turns out that there are similar ties between the Kerry-Edwards campaign and some of the liberal 527s (a development that would hardly be a surprise), then the media will be able to pronounce this an "everyone does it" story and transform the entire Swiftvets campaign into a matter of moral equivalence with the anti-Bush ads being run by MoveOn.org and others.
It's not. What the Swiftvets are doing is as dirty and shocking and disgraceful as anything done in modern political history - far worse than the infamous Willie Horton ad that George H.W. Bush's supporters ran in going after Michael Dukakis. Kerry cannot let the lies of the Swiftvets be held up as somehow the same as entirely truthful ads questioning Bush's missing months in the Texas Air National Guard.