While they may not be getting the details right about the connection between the Bush administration and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the campaign press finally is doing something we’ve been hoping for for months: Sorting out truth from fiction in the controversy over John Kerry’s military service in Vietnam.

Launching a salvo into an August political news vacuum earlier this month, SBVFT jump-started the controversy by alleging Kerry had lied to receive his medals. The melee was further fueled by the release of Unfit for Command a book authored by John O’Neill, a Houston lawyer and the man who took over command Kerry’s swift boat after his return stateside, and Jerome Corsi, a Harvard Ph.D.

Until late Wednesday night Kerry himself let the accusations fly without aggressively challenging them, until, as many papers reported today, he decided it was time to fight back. In wake of the senator’s new approach, Campaign Desk has seen an equally rejuvenated press corps. Yesterday, the Washington Post published a report based on the official Navy records of LTJG Larry Thurlow, which calls into question Thurlow’s criticism of Sen. Kerry. Thurlow has charged that Kerry’s swift boat was not under attack from enemy fire on March 13, 1969. Thurlow, like Kerry, received a bronze star for his actions that day, and Thurlow’s official navy records filed for the citation praises Thurlow for his action “despite enemy bullets flying about him.”

Then today the New York Times took an in-depth look (nearly 3,500 words) at the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s “web of connections to the Bush family, high-profile Texas political figures and President Bush’s chief political aide, Karl Rove.”

In a break from “he-said, she-said” journalism the press found enough backbone to assert truth when supported by fact. Rather than relying on partisan talking points to provide a rebuttal, the Times’ Kate Zernike and Jim Rutenberg assert with the newspaper’s voice that “But on close examination, the accounts of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’ prove to be riddled with inconsistencies. In many cases, material offered as proof by these veterans is undercut by official Navy records and the men’s own statements.” The Los Angeles Times’ Matea Gold and Maria L. La Ganga did the same, writing, “A Times review of their accusations found that, in addition to Thurlow, other members also had given contradictory accounts of incidents and offered evidence of Kerry’s alleged wrongdoing based on memories of events that they say they witnessed from a boat or two away. Military documents and accounts of crewmates who did serve with Kerry support the view put forth by the candidate and his campaign — that he acted courageously and came by his five medals honestly.”

Although the press should be commended for its assertiveness, it appears that it only acted aggressively when prompted by Kerry (with the exception of a few including the Post), once again letting the candidate’s charges dictate what’s worth pursing. Perhaps if the press corps had been as aggressive in reporting out this story months ago when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth held its initial press conference, rather than simply printing he said/she said accounts that highlighted the controversy and not the facts, Americans wouldn’t be quite so confused as to which version of the story has more credibility based on official records and previous oral accounts.

In a campaign season where the candidates have demonstrated a willingness (even eagerness) to misinform voters, it’s the responsibility of the press to inform the public about who’s enlightening us with fact and who’s misleading us with fiction.

Thomas Lang

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.