Saturday, August 28, 2004

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 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.


Aaron Read said...

Dan, one of things I've always loved about your blogging is that you're good about presenting the facts, and THEN giving people the nudge they need to interpret them. That is, in contrast to the usual conservative method of diluting information down to the "thin gruel" level and spoon feeding an ignorant public. Your method is honest, intelligent, thoughtful and classic "liberal".

Unfortunately, it's also the classic reason why liberals keep losing ground in American politics. Liberals seek to be balanced and learn from others; conservatives prefer to ram their opinions down others' throats because "they know they're right".

But after a year or so of reading the MediaLog, I see this whole Swift-Boat Veterans for Bullsh...err, for "truth"...seems to have to done something to you. It's made you mad. And by God I say it's about time.

I personally LOVE 527's. Why? Because it's biased, dishonest, mudraking SLANDER. And it's about goddamn time we saw that from BOTH sides. Sure as the Republicans are gonna do it - and HAVE been doing it for years. It's about time the Democrats did the same. Granted it contributes to the "gray fallacy" (one says black, one says white - so gray must be the truth) but it beats the hell out of the Republicans always winning and then wreaking havoc on this earth.

Anonymous said...

Guys, the problems here are that a) Kerry said that the Christmas in Cambodia memory was "seared -- seared" into his memory, even though he probably wasn't there, most certainly had not been ordered to go there, and Richard Nixon wasn't the president, and b)while his service in Vietnam was honorable (and I believe it was), it just isn't much to build a bid for president on. Did he launch D-Day? Left-hook the commies at Inchon? Capture New Orleans? Did he even storm a ridge?

Smearing and posturing aside, the simple truth is that Kerry brings almost nothing to the table. Combine that with his despicable Senate testimony in 1971 and one can understand why the rather scummy attacks on him work: A lot of people want to dislike him and they want him to fail.

Imagine a General Tommy Franks candidacy. Tons of more bad stuff could be tossed at him than at Kerry, but the two brilliant victories in Afghanistan and Iraq would speak for themselves: The man can organize, the man can lead, the man can win (I'm not saying he should run, just that a debate about his accomplishments wouldn't rotate around which side of a non-existing line he spent Christmas 35 years ago).

Kerry has managed to entangle himself in what should have been but a minor bullet point in his resume b/c there are so precious few other points in there.

And you all knew that from the get go.

Anonymous said...

One problem with the line "But the Swiftvets and their shadowy backers understood something about the media: if you make an accusation, news orgs will cover it..."

That only works if the accusation is against a Democrat. The lie is never, ever even acknowledged if it's against the republican filth. Hell, the media don't even look into the truth about those vile people.


Phil Gallagher said...

The things that are hurting Kerry are items which should have been vetted by the Globe years ago. Such as, he hasn't released his military records, the Post article you mentioned said it cleaarly that they only receieved 6 pages out of 100 available in a Freedom of Information requests.

Phil Gallagher said...

His own journal states that he receieved his first enemy fire 9 days after his first purple heart. Silver Stars are not awarded with combat V's for valor. His commanding officer refused his request for a purple heart. He was not in Cambodia on Christmas eve of 1968. None of these things are scurrilous lies. Although damaging none of this is going to hurt the senator as much as his own words in his congressional testimony. Neither the Post or the Globe or Chris Mathews are going to be able to help him epxlain it away.

Anonymous said...

Great article explaining it all. However, for those of us who know that these were all lies (and it's clear as day that they are no matter what media outlet is reporting) it's sort of like preaching to the choir. Personally I cannot even comprehend how it even got this far when Bush completely dodged his duty and Kerry enlisted and fought for our country. More than it being a question of the media and who covers what and how, it is very insightful into the way Americans think and what crap they'll eat up. It's very disheartening and I thought we knew better than that and to live in such ignorance, now I am not so sure. Now if we do lost the election to Bush, it will once again be due to the electoral college cause he'll never win the popular vote. My question is, are we going to sit back and take it (like the swift boat ads) or actually do something about it this time. Anyway, you blame the media, I blame the people because the truth is there if you really want to find it.