August 11, 2004,
It all seems so familiar now. In their overt desire to reject a second term for a President Bush, the liberal media elite allows the Democratic candidate to create a legend around himself and his past. Whatever inconvenient holes or weaknesses there are in his personal history are whitewashed out. When the Democrat's critics challenge these legends, only then is it time to travel beyond the mythology and launch into investigative journalism but only to expose the cynical conspiracies of the partisan plotters against the Democrat.
This entire cycle, which recalls 1992 and then repeats in every other year of the Clinton era, is now coming around again with the ad and book campaign of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In Clinton-era terms, it could echo the Paula Jones case. Like Jones, the vets held a press conference (at the National Press Club in early May) that most national media outlets strenuously ignored. So months later, they created another splash to draw the media out, only to be sharply criticized.
But the better Clinton-era comparison for the swift-boat veterans are the Arkansas state troopers. Obviously, Vietnam was no walk through a Little Rock nightclub. But these men know Kerry, as the troopers knew Clinton. They say they are eyewitnesses to some moments that do not match the much-seen flattering filmstrips of his wartime experiences. It is the very possibility of their persuasive power that causes Democratic-media apparatchiks to decide they must be discredited. Their motives for lying were the primary focus, and reporters rarely sought to confirm the negative stories, preferring to leave them unsubstantiated and uncirculated.
Why would the media approach the swift-boat vets opposing Kerry by completely changing the subject instead of engaging the battle on the turf of Kerry's record? If they're so confident Kerry is unassailable and the vets are politically daft, why not demand Kerry's records to shut it down? Here again you can see the Clinton parallels. Behind the pro-Democrat bravado is a real lack of confidence in what a careful evaluation of the public record will show. They change the subject to motivations and personal attacks because merely raising the subject, the question of whether Kerry served or protested honorably and without great political calculation is a loser for Democrats. If the portrait of Kerry tips even a bit from jut-jawed hero to unreliable ally in a crisis, a self-promoter with presidential ambitions in the most trying situations, Kerry's chances with veterans and military families may be quite hampered.
If conservatives were slow to see Clinton parallels, the media liberals were not. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann noted that the new swift-boat veterans book comes "from Regnery Press, which is supported in some way by Richard Mellon Scaife of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, and you now bring in the whole mystical right-wing conspiracy jazz." Keith doesn't feel he has to have any proof of Scaife-prints on Regnery or the veterans, just a vague but vivid belief in harmonic conservative convergence.
Wall Street Journal pundit Al Hunt denounced the effort in the classic Washington way: When you don't want to assess whether an attack is true or false, just say that asking the question is crappy politics. "Suppose in the 1992 presidential election, after an unconfirmed rumor surfaced about an alleged affair then President Bush had years earlier, Clinton supporters decided to make marital fidelity a central issue. That would be almost as crazy as the current effort by some Bush backers to focus attention on John Kerry's Vietnam War record and subsequent protests." For Hunt and others, the calculus is easy: Bush ducked, Kerry fought. What Kerry did while fighting or protesting is "beyond the pale" of public discussion.
Conservatives and liberals can debate whether the veterans charging Kerry is "Unfit for Command" are a boon or a bane to Bush. But the news media is supposed to operate on a different plane with a different formula. What is the true and full biography of a man who wants to be president? They're supposed to investigate, and then report if the substance of the charges is true or false. Instead, the media act with extreme political calculation at the risk of their own reputation for fair play just as they did in the Clinton years.
On NBC, the swift-boat-vet ad isn't a new frontier for investigative journalism, but an undesirable outbreak of free speech that should have been prevented by law. Tom Brokaw asked Friday night: "Up next, NBC News 'In Depth' tonight: The latest campaign ad from an independent political group. Harsh attacks. Are these ads totally out of control?" Could he telegraph any more blatantly that he wished this ad did not exist, or that he would have liked to control it right into the dumpster?
He later explained: "NBC's Andrea Mitchell tells us tonight, the campaign-finance law supposed to fix the system left this very big loophole." The network stars have discovered that "527" groups, which the Democrats have built willy-nilly to defeat President Bush, have suddenly become undesirable. So we should ask: Is Tom Brokaw out of control? Aren't he and his fellow reporters one giant "loophole" in our campaign speech system?
The mere fact that we're at this embryonic stage of Kerry's biography in August shows the lack of media vigilance about Kerry's resume. If anyone would question the timing of the current Swift Boat vets campaign, they are correct. They could have started in May at the National Press Club. They could have started in February, when Terry McAuliffe and the Democrats drew two weeks of meticulous network pounding of George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. (For example, take CBS's John Roberts on February 12: "Officials hoped the release of Mr. Bush's dental records would end the matter, but the dentist who treated him has no specific recollection of seeing the future president.")
But they should have been exploring this story on their own in January, when Kerry broke out of the Democratic pack through powerful and repeated war heroism stories. Since Sen. Kerry began putting his Vietnam experience into biographical overdrive before the Iowa caucuses, it might have seemed like an obvious task for reporters to assess Kerry's service in greater detail. But they did not. They are more interested in electing Kerry than telling us about him.
Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and an NRO contributor.