He left out a two-letter word, “us.” What he meant to say, what his prepared remarks have him saying is this: “Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart, if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush.”
It’s almost impossible to believe that the omission of one tiny word could create such noise. But, as we all know by now, John Kerry’s “blundered joke” on Monday afternoon has ricocheted through the media many times over in the past two days, and, incredible as it seems, becoming a factor in next week’s midterm election.
The reason Kerry’s comment has passed before our eyes so many times—rather than, say, something of substance—is that Republicans, from Bush on down, gleefully took the misspoken words at face value, implying that somehow Kerry, a decorated veteran, hates the military, and repeated them over and over again. The vice president, truly outdoing himself, even managed to rehash one of the great laugh lines of 2004: “Senator Kerry said he was just making a joke and he botched it up. I guess we didn’t get the nuance. Actually, he was for the joke before he was against it.”
The press dutifully and mindlessly leaped onto the new controversy, with no thought to how it shed absolutely no light on any of the issues that actually matter in these midterms. Seasoned political reporters like Adam Nagourney at the New York Times and Peter Baker at the Washington Post blew precious column inches on the fallout of a negligible misstatement by someone who isn’t even on the ballot.
There is much to critique about this shameful moment. But to pinpoint one of the more frustrating elements, these journalists did not even have the intellectual honesty to admit that they helped make this story grow.
In account after account, the wide exposure of the Kerry comment was attributed to “White House and Republican allies.” A New York Times “Political Memo” this morning described the provenance of the statement and its broad effect in almost religious terms, a deus ex machina, “manna from Massachusetts.”
But the raised voices of Republican operatives alone—even when the president is among them — do not a story make. For that you need reporters to amplify it and editors to give it prominence.
The Post article on the affair described its spread this way: “The White House and Republican allies orchestrated a cascade of denunciations throughout the day to keep the once and possibly future presidential candidate on the defensive and force other Democrats to distance themselves.” What about the fact that these “denunciations” were picked up by the press and treated as a substantial story?
To describe the Kerry kerfuffle passively — “much of the day’s political conversation centered on Kerry,” wrote the Post—is a guileless way of absolving journalists from any role in the story at all.
Ironically, many of the articles on the Kerry slip-up were written as “meta” analyses. Not wanting to deign to reprint blatant exaggerations by one side or another, the respectable press opts for writing stories about the fact that blatant exaggerations are being hurled from one side or another. Such an article might have been a good place to describe the press’s role. But no.
Take today’s Times’ “Political Memo.” This is the closest we get to an admission of involvement: “The White House, which had been struggling for ways to make President Bush less of a liability in the election, seized on Mr. Kerry’s comments, with the president, vice president and spokesmen blanketing radio and television to blast him for impugning the troops.” (Note the absence of newspapers in that list of the culpable.)