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.

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.