QUOTE OF THE WEEK:
"Long before newspapers and television networks began dissecting the claims of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Media Matters for America, a new Website headed by conservative-turned-progressive David Brock was in hot pursuit of the anti-Kerry group." -- Cox News Service, 8/26
Next week, Media Matters for America will extensively cover conservative misinformation in the media surrounding the Republican National Convention, just as we did during the Democratic National Convention last month. Of particular note during the Democratic Convention was our survey of coverage of convention speeches, which found that the cable networks, especially FOX News Channel, gave scant live coverage to speeches by former President Jimmy Carter and other notable speakers. We will conduct a comparable study of cable coverage of next week's Republican Convention. Be sure to visit mediamatters.org all next week for our latest updates on the convention coverage.
But this week, only one topic matters: the failure of the media, with some exceptions, to responsibly cover Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's (SBVT) allegations about John Kerry:
As each day brings more evidence that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is nothing more than a band of charlatans and partisan hacks with close ties to the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, the media's complicity in allowing these false charges to hijack the presidential race becomes more and more apparent.
A Media Matters for America survey of major newspaper editorials published between August 20 and August 26 found 24 editorials that have discussed issues related to the SBVT attacks; only two of those editorials said the group's allegations may have merit.
And yet the media continues to force wall-to-wall coverage of these baseless attacks on the public. Why?
The nonpartisan Columbia Journalism Review's website The Campaign Desk, calling media coverage of SBVT a "low point" among the "dozens of press failures during this presidential campaign," explained how the media has failed the public in covering the SBVT story:
Liberal commentators, not unjustifiably, are blaming the SBVFT for polluting campaign rhetoric with their loaded claims and harsh attacks. But the lion's share of the blame should not fall on the group, whose paid ads, after all, have appeared in just three states -- and are the kind of strident attack that might easily have quickly dropped off the national radar screen. While the SBVFT may have a questionable grasp of the facts, it has been extraordinarily sophisticated in its manipulation of the media. To understand why this campaign has been hijacked by a small group of veterans bearing a thirty-year old grudge, it's worth examining the institutional susceptibilities of a campaign press corps that allowed the SBVFT's accusations to take on a life of their own. The SBVFT may have put themselves in the game, but it's a flawed media that made them stars.
In the wake of the first SBVFT spot early this month, cable news programs for the most part offered viewers two talking heads, one on each side of the issue, to debate the merits of the claims. Verifiable facts were rarely offered to viewers -- despite the fact that military records supporting Kerry's version of events were readily available. Instead of acting as filters for the truth, reporters nodded and attentively transcribed both sides of the story, invariably failing to provide context, background, or any sense of which claims held up and which were misleading.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote that the SBVT saga is a "test" for the media:
This is also a test for the media. We see here a fascinating and ugly development in the politics of annihilation. A supposedly outside group raises money from close Bush supporters, staffs itself with political operatives close to Bush and the Republicans, and then puts up several hundred thousand dollars worth of television ads. This is, as one operative with years of experience in Republican campaigns put it, "a professional hit." Suddenly, questions about Kerry's service that were asked and answered months ago become big news again.
To their credit, several news organizations -- the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and The Post among them -- have run reports exposing the distortions, inconsistencies and fabrications of the anti-Kerry crowd, and the links between this operation and the Bush machine.
But this hasn't stopped the run of unproven innuendo.
The Los Angeles Times agreed in an August 24 editorial, noting that the media is doing the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign's work for them:
The technique President Bush is using against John F. Kerry was perfected by his father against Michael Dukakis in 1988, though its roots go back at least to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. It is: Bring a charge, however bogus. Make the charge simple ... [b]ut make sure the supporting details are complicated and blurry enough to prevent easy refutation.
Then sit back and let the media do your work for you. Journalists have to report the charges, usually feel obliged to report the rebuttal, and often even attempt an analysis or assessment. But the canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false. As a result, the voters are left with a general sense that there is some controversy over ... Kerry's service in Vietnam.
It must be infuriating to the victims of this process to be given conflicting advice about how to deal with it from the same campaign press corps that keeps it going. The press has been telling Kerry: (a) Don't let charges sit around unanswered; and (b) stick to your issues: Don't let the other guy choose the turf.
There is an important difference, though, between the side campaign being run for Kerry and the one for Bush. The pro-Kerry campaign is nasty and personal. The pro-Bush campaign is nasty, personal and false.
Not limited by the conventions of our colleagues in the newsroom, we can say it outright: These charges against John Kerry are false. Or at least, there is no good evidence that they are true. George Bush, if he were a man of principle, would say the same thing.
Media fails to question Bush camp's spin (again); there is no comparison between SBVT ads and MoveOn ads
In an effort to avoid criticism for not denouncing the SBVT ads -- and for their ties to SBVT -- the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign has taken to arguing that the SBVT ads are no different from ads run by MoveOn.org and other liberal organizations that criticize President George W. Bush. Many media outlets have fallen for this spin, and the MoveOn.org comparisons have flooded the airwaves and news pages in recent days -- with few reporters bothering to examine the similarities and differences between the ads.
Columbia Journalism Review noted the absurdity of the comparisons, and took the media to task for falling for them:
When Kerry called on Bush to condemn the Swift Boat ads, the White House pointed out that the president had himself been the target of harsh attack ads run by independent "527" groups supporting Kerry, and repeated its months-old contention that all such outside advertising should be banned.
The press dutifully reported this argument. But rarely if ever did reporters see fit to assess the validity of the comparison the Bush campaign was making. The anti-Bush ad most often cited by the White House as comparable to the Swift Boat spot was a MoveOn ad that questioned the president's service in the National Guard. But each one of the claims made in the MoveOn ad -- that Bush used family connections to get into the Guard, that he was grounded after failing to show up for a physical, that he wasn't seen at a Guard meeting for months, and that he was released eight months early to attend Harvard Business School -- is not in dispute. The overall tenor of the ad is harsh, to be sure -- so harsh, in fact, that Kerry quickly called it "irresponsible" -- but there's been no real argument that any of its assertions are untrue.
Compare that to the Swift Boat ads. Given that military records support Kerry's version of events, and that the credibility of many of Kerry's accusers is now in doubt, it would seem that if anyone should be on the defensive for lacking corroboration and documentation, it's those defending Bush's service record, not Kerry's. No anti-Bush ad from MoveOn has flown in the face of the preponderance of evidence in the way that the Swift Boat ad does. The press, then, should have pointed out the illogic of grouping the two spots as one and the same.
And, as noted above, the Los Angeles Times editorial board noted the "important difference" between the SBVT ads and the ads critical of Bush: "The pro-Kerry campaign is nasty and personal. The pro-Bush campaign is nasty, personal and false."
The Swift Boat Liars and their accomplices in the media, seeing their attacks about John Kerry's medals fall apart more and more each day, have turned to claiming Kerry lied about being in Cambodia.
The Note, written by the ABC News' Political Unit, Noted on August 24:
Now that the charges of medal inflation and fabrication have been largely discredited by the likes of [ABC's Jake] Tapper, [The Washington Post's Michael] Dobbs, the Los Angeles Times and others, supporters of the book fall back on the Cambodia charge to tar Kerry with the book's central thesis that he's prone to verbal prestidigitation.
One problem: SBVT's lead attack dog on the Cambodia issue has been John O'Neill -- and this week, O'Neill was exposed for lying about his own experience in Cambodia. O'Neill has repeatedly insisted that neither he nor Kerry was ever in Cambodia; but this week, tapes of a 1971 Oval Office conversation between O'Neill and then-President Richard Nixon emerged and demonstrated, once again, that O'Neill is a liar:
O'NEILL: I was in Cambodia, sir. I worked along the border on the water
NIXON: In a swift boat?
O'NEILL: Yes, sir.
For those keeping score at home, O'Neill is now known to have lied about himself, his organization, and his book. He's lied about being a Republican from Texas, lied about his political involvement, lied about his ties to the Nixon White House, lied about his campaign contributions, lied about his co-author, lied about the makeup of SBVT, and lied about whether he was ever in Cambodia.
Given how many lies O'Neill has told about himself, why would anyone believe anything he says about John Kerry?
Why does the media keep paying attention to this two-bit huckster?
Stephen Gardner is frequently touted as a firsthand witness to John Kerry's Vietnam service because he served on Kerry's swift boat. But, as Media Matters for America revealed this week, Gardner's knowledge of Kerry's service has been overstated:
Stephen Gardner has been touted by the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and by conservative hosts as a singularly authoritative critic with firsthand knowledge of Senator John Kerry's (D-MA) record in Vietnam because Gardner -- unlike all the other members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- actually served on a swift boat that Kerry commanded. Gardner has questioned Kerry's integrity; has claimed personal knowledge of the circumstances leading to Kerry's first Purple Heart; and has spoken with authority about the events leading to Kerry's Bronze Star. Fellow anti-Kerry Swift Boat Vets member Larry Thurlow has also cited Gardner as eyewitness support for his accusations against Kerry and against Kerry's first Purple Heart. Yet while Gardner did serve as a gunner under Kerry's command on PCF (Patrol Craft Fast) 44, he has admitted that he -- just like the rest of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth claiming that Kerry is lying about his medals -- was not present for the incidents leading to Kerry's receipt of any medals or any of Kerry's three Purple Hearts.
Gardner admitted that "he was not on the boat with Kerry during the incidents for which Kerry got his medals," reported The Columbus Dispatch on August 6.
On the August 2 broadcast of Savage Nation, Gardner himself claimed that all of the wounds for which Kerry received Purple Hearts "were superficial wounds, and I mean very superficial, scratches. The very first one is the only one that I can actually attest to because I was there when that wound happened." But Gardner was not there when Kerry sustained that wound. ... Gardner went on to admit: "I was not on the boat with him but I -- in the next three days following that, I was with him on the boat going to take our new position up down there on the seaward operations."
While the attacks on John Kerry's war record have been covered extensively in recent weeks, the media has devoted comparably little coverage to George Bush's Vietnam record.
A Media Matters for America analysis found 1,924 news reports discussing Kerry and swift boat veterans in 2004 -- compared with only 752 reports about Bush and the Alabama National Guard.
Why the disparate coverage?
As MMFA has extensively documented, SBVT are not credible and do not have evidence to support their claims.
On the other hand, all available documentary evidence indicates that Bush apparently didn't bother to show up for National Guard duty for a lengthy period in 1972-73 -- a period when, according to USA Today, "commanders in Texas and Alabama say they never saw him report for duty and records show no pay to Bush when he was supposed to be on duty in Alabama." In contrast with Kerry, who has shipmates who sing his praises, Bush hasn't been able to produce anyone who can credibly say they remember serving with him in the Alabama Guard.
Though we already know that Bush was grounded from flying for failing to take a physical, other questions about his service still linger; USA Today recently summarized some of those remaining questions:
Why did Bush, described by some of his fellow officers as a talented and enthusiastic pilot, stop flying fighter jets in the spring of 1972 and fail to take an annual physical exam required of all pilots?
What explains the apparent gap in the president's Guard service in 1972-73, a period when commanders in Texas and Alabama say they never saw him report for duty and records show no pay to Bush when he was supposed to be on duty in Alabama?
Did Bush receive preferential treatment in getting into the Guard and securing a coveted pilot slot despite poor qualifying scores and arrests, but no convictions, for stealing a Christmas wreath and rowdiness at a football game during his college years.
The Associated Press filed a lawsuit this summer requesting copies of Bush's military records stored in a Texas archive on microfilm. It sought information that might explain why Bush did not take his flight physical and whether he showed up for duty in Alabama in the fall of 1972, AP spokesman John Stokes said.
One might think -- since we already know that Bush skipped a required physical, causing him to be grounded, and that records give no indication that he showed up for duty for several months -- that media coverage of questions about the candidates' Vietnam-era service would focus on Bush's record. But that's not what has happened so far during this presidential campaign.
The media's inconsistent coverage of the controversy around the two candidates' war records is particularly obvious in two examples MMFA identified.
First, many in the media condemned then-Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark for failing to distance himself from criticism of Bush's Guard record made at a Clark event in January -- but the media has given Bush a pass after he thanked a supporter for comments attacking Kerry's Vietnam record at an August campaign event:
In January, during the Democratic primaries, filmmaker Michael Moore, appearing at a rally for then-presidential candidate Ret. General Wesley Clark, called Bush a "deserter," referring to Bush's apparent failure to report for duty in Alabama. A firestorm quickly developed, and Clark was widely condemned in the media for not challenging Moore's comment. During a Democratic primary debate, moderator and ABC News anchor Peter Jennings even suggested that Clark's failure to contradict Moore was an example of poor "ethical behavior."
Fast-forward to August: At a Bush campaign event in Beaverton, Oregon, two Bush supporters attacked John Kerry's military record -- one even suggesting Kerry received his Purple Hearts for "self-inflicted scratches" -- in questions to Bush. Bush did not denounce the comments, or disagree in any way. Instead, he thanked the supporters for their comments.
The media has ignored the Bush event and ignored Bush's tacit endorsement of the attacks on Kerry's military record made in his presence (which, by the way, recalled the 2000 Republican primaries, when, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Bush stood on a stage and listened as a supporter accused McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, of turning his back on veterans").
A LexisNexis search shows only six mentions of the Beaverton incidents: two Washington Post articles, two Washingtonpost.com articles, a column by Gene Lyons in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and a Scripps Howard article. The Bush event is perfectly analogous to the Clark/Moore event (except that Moore had considerably more evidence to support his position than did the questioners at the Bush event) -- and yet the news media, which covered the Clark/Moore event so thoroughly, has ignored the Bush event.
Second, while alleged (and unproven, and apparently baseless) charges that John Kerry has lied about his military service have gotten extensive media coverage this year, two well-documented examples of Bush lying about his own record have been all but ignored:
Bush lied during his 1978 congressional campaign, falsely claiming [in a campaign ad] he had served in the Air Force.
Bush didn't serve in the U.S. Air Force; he served in the National Guard. When confronted with questions about the ad, Bush said, "The facts are I served 600 days in the Air Force," basing his claim on the assertion that National Guard service and Air Force service are the same thing. But the Associated Press reported that [according to the Air Force itself] there is, in fact, a difference between the National Guard and the Air Force.
By claiming to have been in the Air Force, Bush may have been trying to create the impression that he was in -- or could have been sent to -- Vietnam. But when he had the opportunity to volunteer for "overseas" duty, Bush refused, as page 22 of these Bush military records (pdf) reveals. Indeed, Bush once famously explained why he joined the National Guard: "I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes."
MMFA can find only one media mention on LexisNexis since January of this obvious Bush lie about the Air Force.
Another example of a clear-cut Bush lie about his military record that has gone almost completely unnoticed by the media this year is a false claim he made in his autobiography about how long he flew jets for the Guard. The Boston Globe reported: "Bush himself, in his 1999 autobiography, A Charge to Keep, recounts the thrills of his pilot training, which he completed in June 1970. 'I continued flying with my unit for the next several years,' the governor wrote."
But, as USA Today has reported, Bush "stop[ped] flying fighter jets in the spring of 1972" -- less than two years after completing his pilot training. Not only did Bush stop flying in the spring of 1972, he was grounded from flying in August 1972, after refusing to take a required physical.
[T]he media has ignored this clear lie that George W. Bush told in order to advance a political campaign. A search of the LexisNexis database yields only seven hits for 2004 -- three of which are versions of an Eric Alterman column that appeared in multiple newspapers, and one of which is a letter to the editor.
The Washington Post's Dionne, commenting on coverage of Kerry's war record, concluded:
The media have to do more than "he said/he said" reporting. If the charges don't hold up, they don't hold up. And, yes, now that John Kerry's life during his twenties has been put at the heart of this campaign just over two months from Election Day, the media owe the country a comparable review of what Bush was doing at the same time and the same age.