In covering forthcoming anti-Obama books, will media repeat Swift Boat coverage mistakes?
Research ››› ››› SARAH PAVLUS
Two books attacking Sen. Barack Obama are scheduled to be released in early August: The Obama Nation, by Jerome Corsi -- co-author of Unfit for Command, which contains false and baseless attacks on Sen. John Kerry's military service -- and The Case Against Barack Obama, by David Freddoso. Regnery, publisher of The Case Against Barack Obama, touts the book as having the same "goal" as Unfit for Command, which Regnery also published. The overt connections between the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's scurrilous campaign against Kerry and the two forthcoming books raise the question for the media: Will they have absorbed the lessons of their highly flawed Swift Boat coverage and give more immediate and more thorough scrutiny to these forthcoming books?
Two books attacking Sen. Barack Obama are scheduled to be released on August 1 and August 4 -- The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality (Threshold Editions), by Jerome Corsi, co-author of Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, which contains false and baseless attacks on Sen. John Kerry's military service, and National Review Online writer David Freddoso's The Case Against Barack Obama: The Unlikely Rise and Unexamined Agenda of the Media's Favorite Candidate. Regnery, publisher of The Case Against Barack Obama, touts the book as having the same "goal" as Unfit for Command, which Regnery also published. During and after the 2004 election, critics rebuked the media for taking so long to challenge the smears against Kerry by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in Unfit for Command and in the news media. The overt connections between the Swift Boat Veterans' scurrilous campaign against Kerry and the two forthcoming books raise the question for the media: Will they have absorbed the lessons of their highly flawed Swift Boat coverage and give more immediate and more thorough scrutiny to these forthcoming books?
Post-mortems assessed the media's response to the Swift Boat attacks, with several noting the consequences of their delay in debunking the allegations.
From an American Journalism Review article by editor Rem Rieder, published in the October/November 2004 issue:
The most important contribution the big players can make is truthsquadding, taking a hard, penetrating look at the claims and counterclaims in sophisticated overviews. We saw that as papers including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post ran stories largely undercutting the allegations of the Swift Boaters (though the Post's was an odd piece of work, with a headline and top that seemed out of synch with the rest of the story).
When all manner of allegations are swirling around, the traditional media have the resources to sort it out. And they might as well jump on such endeavors quickly: This story had quite awhile to marinate until the deeper reporting appeared.
From an op-ed written by Christopher Hanson, who "teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park," published in the Baltimore Sun on October 22, 2004 (retrieved from Nexis):
One of the central responsibilities of journalism is to separate fact from opinion in order to inoculate the voter against misleading propaganda, as press critic Walter Lippmann pointed out in the 1920s.
But the trend toward ideological journalism does exactly the opposite, making it easier for falsehood to masquerade as fact and for voters to cast ballots based on false assumptions. Some conservatives dismiss complaints about Sinclair as the hypocritical whining of liberals who refuse to admit that other broadcast TV networks have a pro-Kerry agenda.
"It's hardly an abuse of public trust ... for Sinclair to present an alternative view of Mr. Kerry's much-ballyhooed days as an anti-war protester," the conservative Boston Herald declared in an Oct. 15 editorial. "The other side of the story has been told ad nauseam ... What half-tuned-in voter can't picture young Lt. Kerry ... talking about the 'last man' dying for a mistake."
There is a huge difference between presenting multiple sides of a news story and purveying the absurd allegation that young antiwar activist Kerry single-handedly prolonged the Vietnam War.
Not to mention that the three major networks' record this year is hardly pro-Kerry. NBC, CBS and ABC reported heavily on claims of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that Kerry did not deserve some of his medals and had been sent stateside because of an unintentionally self-inflicted wound. Only after the damage was done did the mainstream media follow up to report that these charges were groundless.
Every reporter has biases and makes mistakes. But that is a far cry from Sinclair's unbridled electioneering.
From a column by William Raspberry published in The Washington Post on October 25, 2004:
Indeed, for me the most important complaint about mainstream coverage of the Swift boat affair was not that the mainstream press ignored it, but that mainstream journalists waited too long to get beyond the they-said-he-said "objective" reporting and try to figure out who was closer to the truth.
From the December 26, 2004, edition of CNN's Reliable Sources (retrieved from the Nexis database):
KURTZ (host): Turning now to the campaign, looking back, didn't the press spent way too much time on the swift boat attacks and the National Guard controversy about President Bush? And who did what during the Vietnam era, at a time when the country was facing a lot of important choices about now, not 30 years ago?
JAKE TAPPER (ABC News correspondent): Well, the swift boat veterans, they had an impact on the race. And they started affecting the race before, I think, the mainstream media, by which -- I shouldn't say the mainstream media. The cable news was covering the swift boat veterans before network news and some of the major newspapers.
KURTZ: Right. They had an impact on the race because they bought ads in three states, and cable gave them 24-7 coverage without, at least initially, scrutinizing what they had to say.
TAPPER: But it had an impact on the voters. It started showing up in the polls. And it did, in the end, neutralize, I think, the idea, this part of Kerry's biography, that he was a war hero. I think at the end of the day it did have a significant impact.
How you could not cover that, I don't know. Did we cover it more than we should have, compared to, for instance, the issues? You know, probably.
KURTZ: There was a month when that was what the campaign was about.
JILL ZUCKMAN (Chicago Tribune reporter): You know, it was. I mean, August, that's what it was all about. But I think ultimately the so-called mainstream media came in and said, "We are going to figure this out."
And if you look at the "Chicago Tribune," we had an editor there who wrote an account of what happened in the incidents that Kerry won his Silver Star, because he was there. And he was able to put to rest a lot of these questions. And I think that that was done by a lot of different news organizations.
TAPPER: Well, he didn't do TV interviews, we should point out. He did it at the "Chicago Tribune," but then he wouldn't talk to anyone else.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK (National Public Radio media correspondent) : It's actually a fascinating case study, in some ways. I mean, these folks, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, popped up at the beginning of the summer. "The Boston Globe," the hometown paper of Senator Kerry, took a couple of close looks at it. And then it faded from what you call the establishment mainstream media.
At that point, it started to bubble up on blogs, it started to bubble up through talk radio. Ultimately, cable news picked it up sort of toward August. And then the mainstream media, the major newspapers, major networks, felt it almost thrust upon them.
And they hadn't done the initial reporting and vetting that could have allowed them to assess it, perhaps, in a more thorough and contemplative way.
From an October 8, 2007, washingtonpost.com Media Backtalk Web chat with Howard Kurtz:
Oviedo, Fla.: What, if anything, about the even-faster media pace of blogs, vlogs, etc. would help stop a Swift Boat story from taking hold, as happened last time? Does the ultra-fast news cycle help dilute the impact of these type of trumped-up scandal stories?
Howard Kurtz: Any story, trumped-up or not, gets out there faster in these days of digital media. Real reporting, it turns out, takes a bit of time. In the case of the Swift Boat ads, a tiny buy in three markets ballooned into a huge story because the spots were constantly replayed on cable news. It took two or three weeks for a handful of newspapers to realize that this had become an important story and to do the digging that raised questions about the claims that some of Kerry's ex-mates were making. The papers did a good job, but they were too slow.