A Swift Boat Kick in the Teeth

How the mainstream media grapple with partisans.


When the partisan tsunami started by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began inundating several weblogs I frequent, especially Glenn Reynolds' InstaPundit.com and the eponymous rogerlsimon.com, my reaction was almost exactly the same as it was to dozens of other hot-button political controversies of the last decade, from Whitewater to the Florida recount to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: I put my hands over my ears, thrust my nose firmly in the air, and said, "Na na na, I can't hear you."

"What I don't understand is how anyone professes to truly give a flip about what John Kerry and George Bush did 32 or 36 years ago," I huffed on my own weblog on August 9, as the swiftee wave began to swell. "Whatever happened to the New Seriousness after Sept. 11? And how many people who are feverishly talking up all this nonsense have NOT already long made up their minds on who they're going to vote for?"

This approach is rational and time-saving for both readers and reporters who want to avoid being sucked down political rabbit holes. And yet from the point of view of journalism's institutions, it is utterly irresponsible.

Contradiction? Not at all, though it certainly plays like one in the endless media bias wars, which is where the swift boat story wound up after a single turbulent month.

Individuals cannot reasonably be expected to express an interested opinion on every micro-scandal of the day. That is the daunting task for undaunted talk radio hosts, Web pundits, and bar drunks, and a major reason why such polymathic opinion dispensers rarely provide much more than a light snack for those seeking the nourishment of truth. Their job, usually, is to provide entertainment and oxygen—heat, not light—and they are constrained by neither the manners nor the objective pose of the nonadvocacy media. Conversely, straight reporters and editors, if they are to make the time for mastering their areas of specialization, must routinely blot out everyday political debates.

But their news organizations don't have to. Large newsrooms have the explicit mission and requisite staffing to arbitrate competing claims—or better (from their point of view), to set off the debate with their own groundbreaking investigations. Yet when faced with a dispute as passionate as the one over John Kerry's Vietnam service, many responsible editors throw up their hands and wish poxes on both houses.

"Never, in the best part of two decades, have I had to reject, throw away or send back for rewrite so many letters filled with so many frauds and character assassinations," wrote Tim White, editorial page editor of the Fayetteville, North Carolina, Observer, in an exasperated August 15 column. "I have as much respect for the attacks of the Swift Boat Veterans as I have for the barrages of Whoopi Goldberg and Michael Moore. None."

The reaction is tempting but wrong. Michael Moore, sloppy and propagandistic though he is, packages hundreds of facts in his polemic entertainments; he also bellows crucial populist oxygen into perfectly legitimate topics such as the cozy relationship between the Bush dynasty and the vile House of Saud. The Swift Boat Veterans, even while kicking off their campaign with an advertisement that centrist Slate columnist Jacob Weisberg decribed as "pack[ing] an impressive amount of deceit into 60 seconds," helped unearth one interesting and potentially important bit of real news: that John Kerry was not in Cambodia on Christmas of 1968, as he had claimed at least four times (on the floor of the U.S. Senate, among other places).

Toss out all swift boat letters to the editor in early August, and you were likely to eliminate the chance that the Cambodia news would even be mentioned in the newspaper—at least until Kerry finally roared back at his critics on August 19. "After Kerry," The Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last wrote, "the deluge."

The ensuing output (much mocked by media-baiting bloggers) was quite impressive in its factual scope. It unearthed connections between the Bush campaign and the Swift Boat Veterans, for example, and applied impressive Washington Post scrutiny to Kerry's war record. But the news media's reluctance was palpable.

"There are too many places for people to get information," Chicago Tribune Managing Editor James O'Shea complained August 24 in Editor & Publisher Online, conceding that his paper should have responded earlier. "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."

The assumption in the last sentence was widely detectable in the news coverage. It was justified to some extent, given that most of the non-Cambodia-related Swift Boat Veterans mud failed to stick. But it became an excuse to ignore the story in the first place. In an unintentionally hilarious "9-point checklist" for "Swift Boat genre" stories, Aly Colon, "ethics group leader" of the hand-wringing Poynter Institute, wrote that the first four questions a newspaper should ask in such a situation are: "Who's making the accusation/allegation? Why now? To whom are they connected? Where does the accuser's funding come from?" All four just happen make the Swift Boat Veterans look sketchy. Colon left out a question that might be more pertinent: "Is it true?"

None of which is to say that Cambodia story wasn't inflated by a lot of hot air. Indeed, the whole affair illustrated perfectly the paradoxes underlying the escalating conflict between the defensive mainstream media and the people who derisively refer to them as the "MSM."

Bloggers and radio hosts pound newspapers for bias that pales in comparison to their own. The same people who pilloried former New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines for mounting a "crusade" against the Augusta National Golf Club's men-only policy devoted their energies to the swift boat story with an obsessiveness impossible to contemplate in a general news publication. The same critics who stomped up and down when the Los Angeles Times made the mistake of saying none of the Swift Boat Veterans served on a boat with Kerry (actually, one did) seemed altogether blasé when the coverage for which they'd been begging exposed the accusatory veterans as being very far from scrupulously truthful. (For instance, in the original commercial, military doctor Van O'Dell said, "John Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star….I know, I was there, I saw what happened." In fact he wasn't there, neither when Kerry was wounded nor when he gave his account of the incident.)

Then came the insults, the accusations, and the sky-is-falling hyperbole. "This story…reveals just how in the tank for the Democrats the mainstream media are, and how little the vaunted Cronkitean claims of objectivity and research and factual accuracy really mean when the chips are down," Glenn Reynolds wrote on August 19. "The 'Fourth Estate' is a big part of the unelected Permanent Government that in many ways does more to run the country than the politicians. And it's unraveling before our very eyes, which I think is the biggest story of the election so far."

Later that day, Roger Simon warned darkly of the escalating battle between the MSM and critics like him: "A war is on, ladies and gentlemen, and as with most semi-normal people involved in a war, I don't feel particularly comfortable in it—and not, obviously in this case, because I might get shot."

There's a double standard at work here that news organizations are going to have to get used to. Reynolds and Simon (who are both friends of mine) play a different role than The Washington Post. If they want to obsess and huff and hypothesize and accuse, well, they're just guys with Web sites, like drunks in a bar that holds 10,000 comparatively influential people.

Newspapers, on the other hand, sell themselves as giving us the news, and part of that job includes the messy work of separating factual wheat from partisan chaff. Sorting out how (if at all) to emphasize the results is an ever-elusive art, but ignoring all criticism just because some of it is loud and overheated prevents the mainstream media from doing what they are in the unique position of doing best.