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Self-Inflicted Wounds

October 3, 2004

The e-mail on last week’s Rather-gate column was almost entirely furious with CBS. About 95 percent of some 300 letters and e-mails attacked the network, and all but four or five of those messages denounced my oh-so-moderate suggestion that the goal is not a vengeful assault on CBS but safeguards for fairer reporting. “No,” wrote one reader, “we really want a vengeful assault.”

Normally the mail hovers around 50 percent pro and 50 percent con, partly because many readers greatly enjoy pointing out my many deficiencies. A lopsided reaction like this indicates a huge amount of anti-press animosity, while here in Manhattan news circles, the Rather incident is regarded as a simple mistake and not a very important one at that. The war over press bias has reached a boil that may threaten the whole news business, but the industry seems to think that nothing much is going on. It’s just those yahoos in flyover country getting all excited again.

In truth, the news business had a disastrous summer. In July, a Senate intelligence committee and an official British investigation both concluded that President Bush had been on firm ground when he spoke the famous 16 words in his 2003 State of the Union message (that the British had learned Saddam Hussein had sought to acquire uranium in Africa). When the 16 words appeared to be untrue, the press endlessly trumpeted them, often on the front page, but when Bush drew heavy support from the two investigations, you could hardly find the news with a magnifying glass.

In The New York Times, the British report was carried way inside the paper and read like a muddled translation from classical Urdu. This seems to happen a lot when the Times is forced to report news it doesn’t like. On July 25, The Washington Post press critic, Howard Kurtz, reported that his newspaper had carried 96 references to the issue when Bush appeared to be wrong and only two after the revelation that he looked to be right. The totals for the three major networks and three elite newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, were 302 before and nine after. According to Kurtz, CBS never did get around to mentioning that the investigations had supported the president.

Media handling of the charges by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was even more peculiar. Most major news media stayed silent for nine or 10 days as the story of the charges spread over radio and the Internet. A few bloggers argued that this was an attempt by big-time media outlets to rule the Swifties’ charges out of bounds. It seemed that way to me, too. When big media finally did rouse themselves and address the issue, they tended to focus tightly on Democratic talking points, such as who provided the funding and were the Swifties illegal surrogates for the Bush campaign. In many news outlets, the adjective “unsubstantiated” seemed welded to the noun “charges.”

A few major papers, including the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, produced long and incurious reports on the issue, generally hostile to the Swifties. In The New York Times, Kerry’s imaginary Christmas-in-Cambodia yarn was pushed way to the back of an endless story, along with the news that Kerry had told the Senate in 1986 that he had entered Cambodia on his Swift boat. The Times apparently had no room to mention that Kerry had told this story many times over 25 years and had described it as a life-changing incident seared into his memory.

But the life-altering experience of Christmas in Cambodia apparently never happened. It was a Kerry fantasy. The press yawned and looked the other way. Kerry said he entered Cambodia with a CIA agent. But how likely is it that the CIA would choose to penetrate an illegal area with a clunky, noisy boat commanded by someone as inexperienced as Kerry?

Soon the words “discredited” and “debunked” began to describe the Swifty charges in news reports and commentary. Some Swifty allegations were indeed wildly out of line. But not all. Kerry got his first Purple Heart after alleged hostile fire, but nine days later he wrote in his journal, “We hadn’t been shot at yet.” No witnesses have come forward to tell us how Kerry’s first Purple Heart came to be issued.

Then there was the mysterious third version of the Silver Star citation, an improved and glowing one that appeared late and that John Lehman, secretary of the Navy, said he didn’t write or order to be written. Nobody came forward to explain how or why the citation improved over the years. Kerry refused to make public his journal or his full military records, and the media seemed uninterested in pushing for him to do so. (Compare this with the energetic media demands for Bush’s National Guard records.)

Apparently only one media outlet, The Washington Post, made an effort to open up Kerry’s records and received only six of 100 pages. On the whole, big-time media reporting on the Swifties was dismal. No wonder the credibility of the news media is headed south.

From → Media

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