News consumers haven’t heard much over the past couple of weeks about the economy, terrorism, health care, or Iraq. Instead, the talk has been focused on Vietnam, thanks to the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, who have released in quick order two ads and a book denouncing John Kerry as a dishonorable man who lied to earn his medals, lied to Congress as an antiwar activist, and ultimately betrayed his countrymen. Liberal commentators, not unjustifiably, are blaming the SBVFT for polluting campaign rhetoric with their loaded claims and harsh attacks. But the lion’s share of the blame should not fall on the group, whose paid ads, after all, have appeared in just three states — and are the kind of strident attack that might easily have quickly dropped off the national radar screen. While the SBVFT may have a questionable grasp of the facts, it has been extraordinarily sophisticated in its manipulation of the media. To understand why this campaign has been hijacked by a small group of veterans bearing a thirty-year old grudge, it’s worth examining the institutional susceptibilities of a campaign press corps that allowed the SBVFT’s accusations to take on a life of their own. The SBVFT may have put themselves in the game, but it’s a flawed media that made them stars.

Campaign Desk has written many times about the perils of “he said/she said” journalism, the practice of reporters parroting competing rhetoric instead of measuring it for veracity against known facts. In the wake of the first SBVFT spot early this month, cable news programs for the most part offered viewers two talking heads, one on each side of the issue, to debate the merits of the claims. Verifiable facts were rarely offered to viewers — despite the fact that military records supporting Kerry’s version of events were readily available. Instead of acting as filters for the truth, reporters nodded and attentively transcribed both sides of the story, invariably failing to provide context, background, or any sense of which claims held up and which were misleading. And sometimes even that was asking too much. According to Media Matters, the Aug. 4th editions of FOX News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes” and MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country” both reported and aired the ad without mentioning (1) that despite the ad’s claims, those featured in it did not serve on Kerry’s boat, (2) that the SBVFT was wrapped in Republican ties, dating all the way back to former Nixon protege John O’Neill, or (3) the fact that the doctor who claims to have treated Kerry in the ad was not the medical official who signed his medical records.

Why was the press complicit in keeping afloat a story so easily debunked?

Several factors were at work. The initial ad by the swift boat vets came out in August, which shaped up to be a slow news month, politically speaking. Issues like Kerry’s health care plan weren’t capturing viewers’ imaginations, there hadn’t been a terrorist attack or notable capture for months, and Iraq, continuing U.S. casualties notwithstanding, wasn’t generating much new news. With its natural bias towards ratings-generating conflict, the media readily embraced the SBVFT story, which, with its harsh allegations and clearly demarcated opposing sides, had about it the smell of blood in the water.

As radio talk shows and cable shoutfests seized upon the “story,” the few outlets that initially ignored it or gave it little play were forced to ratchet up their coverage — a classic example of the elements of the media lower down the professional food chain effectively setting the news agenda. Yesterday, Alison Mitchell, deputy national editor of the New York Times, confessed to Editor & Publisher magazine that “I’m not sure that in an era of no cable television we would even have looked into it.” And James O’Shea, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, fretted to E&P about feeling forced to follow a story that he might not otherwise bother with, just because it’s gotten so much air time from the carnival barkers who populate daytime cable and radio.

That sort of thing could have been avoided had news organizations been more aggressive in exploring the SBVFT when it first organized. Last May, without much fanfare, SBVFT held a press conference announcing the group’s formation and laying out its agenda. In an open letter to Sen. Kerry, the group wrote, “Further, we believe that you have withheld and/or distorted material facts as to your own conduct in this war,” and in a press release let it be known that it intended to publicly examine Kerry’s war record. That night, ABC and NBC ignored the development entirely on their nightly news broadcasts, while CBS provided a short report. On Fox News, political correspondent Carl Cameron delivered a report remarkable for its similarity to those seen on TV in recent weeks. He recapped comments from veterans both in support and critical of John Kerry, adding that some of the veterans who are now critical of Kerry previously supported him in 1996. According to Cameron, the Bush campaign denied any involvement in the attacks. Kerry, he said, was doing his best to stay out of the fray. And with that (after a few brief debates on “Hannity & Colmes”), the story went to bed.

In June and July, the press hardly moved the story an inch. By the time the SBVFT resurfaced in early August with its first ad, the story had lain fallow for three months. So the news reports that came out in the wake of the the first August ad elaborated little on Cameron’s original story. No news organization, it seems, had seen fit over the summer to launch a more thorough investigation into the veterans, despite their coming out party months before.

The “fog of war” can cloud newsrooms just as much as it does battlefields, of course. But given the SBVFT’s open letter and virtual declaration of war on Kerry last spring, such investigations should have come as a matter of course.

Throughout August, even as the Swift vets’ book hit bookstores and a second ad was rolled out, the campaign press mostly continued to frame the story as a “he said/she said” battle — at least until last week, when what had been an oddly quiescent press corps lurched awake and began to subject the story to closer scrutiny. The New York Times and Washington Post published articles highly critical of the SBVFT earlier this week, and the Times today meticulously laid out the connections between the swift boat vets on the one hand and lawyers, political strategists and donors to the Bush campaign on the other.

After countless unchallenged segments on the cable news shows and print articles repeating a variety of erroneous SBVFT claims, the mainstream press had belatedly awakened from its summer dormancy and measured spurious claims against known facts. But it had come far too late.

Reporters can, and do, argue that it is not their job to ascertain the veracity of such claims unless and until the Kerry campaign itself raises its voice in protest. But even if you buy that antiquated job description of a good reporter — and we don’t — there’s another ball most of the press is dropping in its coverage of the swift boat imbroglio. Once the Kerry campaign itself began to hit back by questioning the credibility of the Swift Boat Veterans’ claims and arguing that the group was doing the president’s “dirty work,” the press still failed to adequately scrutinize the competing arguments at hand. When Kerry called on Bush to condemn the Swift Boat ads, the White House pointed out that the president had himself been the target of harsh attack ads run by independent “527” groups supporting Kerry, and repeated its months-old contention that all such outside advertising should be banned.

The press dutifully reported this argument. But rarely if ever did reporters see fit to assess the validity of the comparison the Bush campaign was making. The anti-Bush ad most often cited by the White House as comparable to the Swift Boat spot was a MoveOn ad that questioned the president’s service in the National Guard. But each one of the claims made in the MoveOn ad — that Bush used family connections to get into the Guard, that he was grounded after failing to show up for a physical, that he wasn’t seen at a Guard meeting for months, and that he was released eight months early to attend Harvard Business School — is not in dispute. The overall tenor of the ad is harsh, to be sure — so harsh, in fact, that Kerry quickly called it “irresponsible” — but there’s been no real argument that any of its assertions are untrue.

Compare that to the Swift Boat ads. Given that military records support Kerry’s version of events, and that the credibility of many of Kerry’s accusers is now in doubt, it would seem that if anyone should be on the defensive for lacking corroboration and documentation, it’s those defending Bush’s service record, not Kerry’s. No anti-Bush ad from MoveOn has flown in the face of the preponderance of evidence in the way that the Swift Boat ad does. The press, then, should have pointed out the illogic of grouping the two spots as one and the same.

In the end, as always, the information that voters receive depends entirely on the way in which the press frames the story. The problem is that once an easy storyline is entrenched — that Kerry and his detractors disagree — too many reporters fail to press on. In this case, they neglected to either test the veracity of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth or to compare their ads with those financed by other 527s like MoveOn Voter Fund.

There have been dozens of press failures during this presidential campaign. But this one, even given the Times’ and the Post’s belated efforts to get to the bottom of things, has to rank as a low point.

In the end, the whole ball of wax certainly did nothing to help the mainstream press’ credibility with what is an increasingly dubious audience.

The most telling comment on that front may well have come from the unlikely duo of Jon Stewart and Ted Koppel, who shared a telecast during the Democratic convention. Koppel, by way of introducing his own viewers to Stewart, complained that “a lot of television viewers — more, quite frankly, than I’m comfortable with” — get their news from Stewart’s “Daily Show” on Comedy Central. Stewart, almost as if trying to reassure Koppel, responded that his fans were watching him not for news per se, but rather for a “comedic interpretation” of the news. Koppel was unmoved. People watch Stewart “to be informed,” Koppel insisted gloomily. “They actually think they’re coming closer to the truth with your show.”

With that, Stewart pounced. “Now that’s a different thing, that’s credibility; that’s a different animal.”

Yes, it is.

Clarification: The above post has been changed to specify that MoveOn Voter Fund is the 527 arm of MoveOn.

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.