Pretty Please, Just Once?

Yesterday, Campaign Desk offered a big-picture — and rather damning, if we say so ourselves — accounting of the press’ role in Swift BoatGate.

Now, we have a smaller-scale grievance. Our target, however, remains ever the same: to quote our earlier piece, “the carnival barkers who populate daytime cable and radio” and a compliant print media that increasingly follows along in their wake like pilot fish.

As a Campaign Desk tipster pointed out, backers of President Bush have belittled the length of John Kerry’s Vietnam service, painting Kerry as “a grab-and-run medal snatcher… who exit[ed] Vietnam after only four months” — and the great majority of media outlets covering the election race have printed/broadcast this characterization without checking it out.

Now it’s no shocker when a Rush Limbaugh makes light of Kerry’s “four months” in-country, nor even when a Tucker Carlson utters some variation on Kerry’s “four months of service” every day for three days running on CNN.

But surely, one thinks, someone among the non-carnival press must have taken the simple step of fact-checking the actual length of Kerry’s Vietnam service — against, you know, official records or something? — and reported back to readers and viewers.

One, alas, would be wrong.

This past Sunday, Wolf Blitzer didn’t blink when Bob Dole made two mistakes in one sentence on CNN: “I mean [the] first [Purple Heart], whether [Kerry] should have got a Purple Heart — he got 2 in one day, I think, and he was out in less than four months.” And on August 20 The New York Times’ Jodi Wilgoren wrote: “Mr. Kerry, who was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for his four months in Vietnam [emphasis added] has been criticized over the circumstances surrounding his medals since his first Senate campaign in 1984.”

Finally, on Tuesday, the Kerry campaign belatedly appeared to get it: Unless someone set the record straight, the press certainly wasn’t going to run the facts to ground on its own. So camp Kerry responded.

And thus yesterday, Wilgoren’s readers got word that Kerry may have spent more than the “four months in Vietnam” that Wilgoren had previously reported. “At a fund-raiser in Philadelphia,” Wilgoren wrote, “Mr. Kerry called the [Swift Boat] attacks ‘so petty it is almost pathetic’ but then responded to their substance more directly than he had. Noting that some have criticized him for staying in Vietnam for just four months, Mr. Kerry said: ‘Well, I was there longer than that, number one. Number two, I served two tours.’” Readers got no direction from Wilgoren as to whether the actual facts (had she bothered to track them down) jibe with Kerry’s version or that of his critics.

The Los Angeles Times did much the same, reporting what Kerry said on Tuesday, what his detractors had previously said, and making no effort to independently sort out the facts for readers. Ditto for Reuters, which also attributed to Kerry and his aides something it could have been and should have been reporting out for readers on its own:

“[Kerry] said he served in Vietnam for two tours — longer than opponents allege — and the Navy ‘thought enough of my service that they made me an aide to an admiral.’ Aides said his total service was about six months, including four months and 10 days in country and several weeks on a ship off the coast.”

We’re going to go barking mad if we have to say it again: Stop with the stenography, already, and do some reporting! All this coy he-said/she-said/we-won’t-tell reporting is providing your readers and viewers and all the rest of us with nothing more than a national case of whiplash.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.