DURING THE AUGUST 19
edition of PBS's NewsHour, Tom
Oliphant unspooled. "The standard of clear and convincing
it's easy when you leave out the exculpatory stuff--is what keeps this
story in the tabloids," the Boston Globe columnist sputtered,
"because it does not meet basic standards." "This story" (shades
"that woman") is the story of the Swift boat veterans who have raised a
number of troubling allegations against John Kerry. Sitting
John O'Neill, coauthor of Unfit for Command and John Kerry's
successor as commander of PCF-94 in Vietnam, Oliphant did a fair
imitation of Al Gore--sighing, harumphing, and exhaling
loudly--whenever O'Neill spoke.
doesn't cut it in the parts of journalism where
I live," Oliphant lectured O'Neill, who graduated first in a class of
554 from the University of Texas Law School and clerked for U.S.
Supreme Court justice William Rehnquist. "You haven't come within
country mile of meeting first-grade journalistic standards for
accuracy." Watching the media's reaction to the Swift boat
it's clear that many journalists agree with Oliphant.
Two days later, Adam
Nagourney paused in the middle of a news story in the New York Times
to worry about how campaigns should deal with attacks "in this era when
so much unsubstantiated or even false information can reach the public
through so many different forums, be it blogs or talk-show
an article in Editor & Publisher, Alison Mitchell, the
deputy national editor at the Times,
admitted, "I'm not sure that in an era of no-cable television we would
even have looked into [the Swift boat story]." James O'Shea,
editor of the Chicago Tribune, went further: "There are too
many places for people to get information. I don't think
be the gatekeepers anymore--to say this is wrong and we will ignore
Now we have to say this is wrong and here is why."
There are many reasons
why the mainstream media don't like the Swift
boat story, but chief among them is that they've been strong-armed into
covering it by the "new" media: talk-radio, cable television, and
The Swift boat story first surfaced on
May 4, when an op-ed by John O'Neill ran in the Wall Street Journal,
in print and online, and the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, to
which O'Neill belongs, held a press conference at the National Press
Club in Washington, D.C. The event received scant
notice by traditional
media. CBS News mentioned it briefly and tried to tie the group
Bush. The Washington Post and New York Times had
short items about it, as did the Boston Globe. The most in-depth coverage came from
the Fox News Channel. On the May 4 edition of Special
Carl Cameron reported on the press conference, aired some of the
Swifties' allegations, and then reported that certain of these
veterans--Grant Hibbard and George Elliott--had previously supported
John Kerry, immediately casting doubt on them.
The story went away for
a while, but was always lurking in dark corners of the Internet, on
websites like KerryHaters.blogspot.com.
And clearly the big media weren't blind to it. "There are a few
served with him who dispute his record and question his leadership,"
Peter Jennings noted during an ABC News broadcast on July 29.
hear from them in the weeks ahead," he continued, moving abruptly on to
a pretaped package on Kerry's Vietnam heroism.
The next big break for the Swifties
came on August 4, with the
release of their first TV ad. Fox News covered the ad closely.
night Hannity & Colmes featured members of the Swift boat
group as well as veterans who supported Kerry.
That same day some
print media outlets covered the ad buy, but not
the substance of the ad's allegations. On television, only one
broadcast network mentioned the spot: CBS spent two sentences on the
"harsh" ad, in order to air John McCain's denunciation of it.
On August 6, NBC also
reported on the "harsh" ad, but only as a way
of segueing into a segment on "527 groups," independent political
organizations funded with soft money. On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann
mentioned O'Neill's forthcoming Unfit for Command. Since it's
published by the conservative house Regnery, Olbermann reported, "you
now bring in the whole mystical right-wing conspiracy jazz." The
before, Olbermann had repeatedly referred to Swift Boat Veterans for
Truth as "Swift Boat Veterans for Bush."
But the big news on
August 6 was that Regnery allowed people to
download the "Christmas in Cambodia" section of O'Neill's book.
Olbermann and others were worrying about mystical jazz, the new media
swung into action. Hugh Hewitt, Glenn Reynolds, Powerline,
and other bloggers immediately began investigating the book's
allegations. The blog JustOneMinute
was the first to find the 1986 "seared--seared" speech in which Kerry
described his memory of being in Cambodia in December 1968. On
8, Reynolds took his digital camera to the University of Tennessee law
library and photographed the section of the Congressional Record with
the Kerry speech, further verifying the chapter's central claim.
same weekend, Al Hunt talked about the Swift boat ad on CNN's Capital
Gang, calling it "some of the sleaziest lies I've ever seen in
Over the next 11 days,
an interesting dynamic took hold: Talk-radio
and the blog world covered the Cambodia story obsessively. They
reported on border crossings during Vietnam and the differences between
Swift boats and PBRs. They also found two other instances of
talking about his Christmas in Cambodia. Spurred on by the blogs,
led the August 9 Special Report with a Carl Cameron story on
Kerry's Cambodia discrepancy.
All the while,
traditional print and broadcast media tried hard to
ignore the story--even as Kerry officially changed his position on his
presence in Cambodia. Then
on August 19, Kerry went public with his
counter assault against Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and suddenly the
story was news. The numbers are fairly striking:
Before August 19, the New York Times and Washington Post
had each mentioned Swift Boat Veterans for Truth just 8 times; the Los
Angeles Times 7 times; the Boston Globe
4 times. The broadcast networks did far less. According to
indefatigable Media Research Center, before Kerry went public, ABC,
CBS, and NBC together had done a total of 9 stories on the
For comparison, as of August 19 these networks had done 75 stories on
the accusation that Bush had been AWOL from the National Guard.
After Kerry, the
deluge. On August 24, the Washington Post
ran three op-eds and an editorial on the Swifties; other papers
expanded their coverage as well. But, curiously, they didn't try
play catch-up with the new media in ascertaining the veracity of the
Swifties' claims. Instead, they pursued (or rather, repeated) the
charge Kerry made: that Bush was behind Swift Boat Veterans for
It was a touch surreal--as it would have been if Democratic national
chairman Terry McAuliffe's criticism of Bush's National Guard record
had prompted the media to investigate Terry McAuliffe.
But even here, it
seemed their hearts weren't in it. In Time magazine, Joe
Klein called the whole affair "incendiary nonsense." As the Los
observed in an editorial, "Whether the Bush campaign is tied to the
Swift boat campaign in the technical, legal sense that triggers the
wrath of the campaign-spending reform law is not a very interesting
question." As last week wore on, the coverage continued to ignore
specifics of the allegations against Kerry and began to concentrate on
the dangers of the new media. In the New York Times,
Stanley warned that in the seedy world of cable news, "facts,
half-truths and passionately tendentious opinions get tumbled together
on screen like laundry in an industrial dryer--without the softeners of
fact-checking or reflection." It is perhaps impolite to note that it
took the Times nearly four months to catch up with
the reporting Carl Cameron did in the beginning of May.
STILL, the baying of
the Times and the rest of the old
media is a sign of capitulation. Against their will, the
and most prestigious journalists in America have been forced to cover a
story they want no part of--or at the very least, they've been
compelled to explain why they aren't covering it. How did this
Analyzing how the Swift boat veterans had injected their story into the
mainstream media, Adam Nagourney blamed summer. The Swift boat ad
he wrote, had "become the subject of television news shows . . .
because the advertisements and [Unfit for Command] were released
in August, a slow month when news outlets are hungry for any kind of
But Nagourney has it
exactly backwards: Even though it was August,
network television and most cable news shows stayed away from the Swift
boat story for as long as they possibly could.
Instead, James O'Shea
is right. An informal network--the new
media--has arisen that has the power to push stories into the old
media. The combination of talk radio, a publishing house, blogs,
Fox News has given conservatives a voice independent of the old media.
It's unclear which of
these was most critical for bringing the Swift boat story out into the
open. Without Unfit for Command,
the story would never have had a focal point with readily checkable
facts. Talk radio kept the story alive on a daily basis.
served as fact-checkers vetting the story, at least some aspects of it,
for credibility and chewing it over enough so that producers and
editors who read the blogs could approach it without worrying they were
being snookered by black-helicopter nuts. Despite all that,
other medium has the reach of television, which is still the only way
to move a story from a relatively small audience of news-obsessives to
the general public.
Yet the blogosphere has
had a particular interest in taking credit for making the Swift boat
story pop. Blogs from Instapundit to The Belmont Club
were reveling in the demise of the old media and heaping scorn upon
professional journalists. "I have been both a lawyer/law
two decades and a television/radio/print journalist for 15 years of
those 20," Hugh Hewitt blogged. "It takes a great deal more
intelligence and discipline to be the former than to be the latter,
which is why the former usually pays a lot more than the latter.
no surprise to me, then, when lawyers/law professors like those at Powerline
prove to be far more adept at exposing the 'Christmas-in-Cambodia' lie
and other Kerry absurdities than old-school journalists."
John Hinderaker, one of
the bloggers behind Powerline, summed
up the mood of the blogosphere by comparing journalism with brain
surgery: "A bunch of amateurs, no matter how smart and enthusiastic,
could never outperform professional neurosurgeons, because they lack
the specialized training and experience necessary for that field," he
said. "But what qualifications, exactly, does it take to be a
journalist? What can they do that we can't? Nothing."
V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.