We Give These Guys a 5.275 on This Dive

Yeah, we know, you’re probably getting tired of the Olympics by now, but don’t seek surcease by retreating to the campaign press. You’ll only find more triple back flips off the high board (or, to coin an acronym, TBFOHBs). We’ve reported on this technique before, but it has grown so ubiquitous, so apparently ingrained among a few national reporters, that we feel compelled to blow the whistle once again.

The essential technique is this:

1) Provocative lead. Start your story off with a bold assertion bound to catch attention.

2) If you can find them, quote a couple of sources (usually anonymous) repeating said alarming thesis. (If you can’t find them, don’t worry; just quote an equally anonymous source or two, expressing a markedly watered-down version of your lead.)

3) Change subject to ancillary but related matters.

4) Circle back a third time to primary thesis by quoting two or three more sources, usually not anonymous. The twist here is that these guys dispute or make light of said thesis, or, better yet (in the interest of balance, no doubt), they assert that the opposite is true.

Today’s TBFLOHB is brought to us by The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg, past masters, and the paper runs it as its off-lead story in the upper left-hand column of page one.

Their version goes like this:

1) Bold, attention-getting assertion that John Kerry’s sudden detour to defend his Vietnam record from attack “could undermine his campaign for the presidency.”

2) Four paragraph aside to describe Bob Dole’s acerbic comments on Kerry’s war record.

3) Return to thesis from lead: Democrats “close to Mr. Kerry” now fear the controversy is “threatening to undermine his candidacy.”

Well! Bet you can’t wait to see just which worried Democrats, anonymous or named, said anything close to that. The answer is … ummm, none.

The closest Nagourney and Rutenberg come to finding one is a “Democrat close to the campaign, who asked not to be quoted by name,” who observes that, “[w]hen you’re basically running on your biography and there are ongoing attacks that are undermining the credibility of your biography, you have a really big problem.”

The next closest they come is to quote one Bill Carrick, “a Democratic strategist who is not involved in the presidential race,” observing that the swift boat controversy “is certainly keeping Kerry from discussing his own issues and agenda and getting on the offensive.”

4) Having yet to offer convincing evidence that the charges over Kerry’s war record, or his response to them, could “undermine” his run for the White House, Nagourney and Rutenberg deftly reverse themselves deep into the story (and well after the jump) by quoting two Democrats, Tad Devine, a Kerry advisor, and John Edwards, Kerry’s running mate, who both assert that the whole issue will backfire not on Sen. Kerry, but on President Bush. And after said jackknife, the two reporters slide smoothly into the water, like a couple of especially acrobatic porpoises.

That’s the formula, dear reader — and it’s every bit as intricate, as convoluted, as synchronized, as Olympic diving.

Trouble is, there’s always the chance you’ll crack your head on the diving board on the way down.

Steve Lovelady

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.