Running Swiftly Toward the Controversy

John Kerry’s decision to come out swinging against attacks on his war record dominates campaign coverage today — and in their rush to report the juicy controversy, many in the press glossed over a critical fact about the Bush campaign’s relationship to an independent group running the ads.

“Faced with unrelenting attacks on his military record, Sen. John F. Kerry on Thursday said a Republican-funded group of veterans is lying about his service in Vietnam and operating as a front organization for President Bush,” (italics ours) write the Washington Post’s Lois Romano and Jim VandeHei.

The New York Times’ Jodi Wilgoren also tops her story with Kerry’s claim that the Swift Boat vets are “a front for the Bush campaign.”

The Times and the Post,along with the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, and USA Today all duly reported Kerry’s charge linking the group to the Bush White House.

That’s John Kerry’s take on the Swift Boat Veterans, and the campaign press should be careful that they report it as such. At the same time, the media also is obligated to note that, under federal campaign finance law, Swift Boat Veterans is an organization independent of the Bush campaign and Republican National Committee. It may be funded and advised by several people with ties to the Republican Party (see the related New York Times story on the Swift Boat Veterans, complete with chart) but it is officially unaffiliated with candidate or party.

Wilgoren eventually does provide this information, but phrases it this way: “Mr. Bush’s campaign continued to deny any connection with the anti-Kerry group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a so-called 527 committee that operates independently under the new campaign finance rules.” (“Continued to deny” is a phrase that seems to imply a scent of scandal.)

Readers of the Post got an even less informative disclaimer: “… [T]here is no evidence the president’s campaign has direct connections to the anti-Kerry group.”

Los Angeles Times readers received this explanation: “The Bush campaign denied that the president was backing the group.” Other than referring to the Swift Boat Veterans as an “independent committee,” Times readers were given no other explanation of the group’s origins.

Deep into the Post story comes this observation: “The [Kerry] campaign wants to convince voters that Bush and White House political director Karl Rove are behind the effort, at least in spirit.”

A review of today’s news stories makes it appear they have succeeded.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.