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September 1, 2004

Independence From the Press Rocks the Gatekeeper's World

There is a smear campaign launched against John Kerry. But that is not the only thing going on with the Swift Boat Veterans. The press may have knocked down the most serious charges. But the idea of the press as the great adjudicator has also been knocked down.

Madison Square Garden, Sep 1. It’s more of an impression gathered, not something easily witnessed in the behavior of reporters and editors here at the Republican convention; but I think the political press has been stunned by the attack on John Kerry’s military record, and by the events since August 5, when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began running their ads.

That is the word I would use: stunned.

Here and there it is spoken of outright: “I spotted the headline in the Sunday Tribune’s first edition early Saturday afternoon,” wrote Michael Miner in the Chicago Reader. He is referring to William Rood’s first person account of Kerry’s courageous actions as a Swift Boat commander, published Aug. 22. Rood, a Chicago Tribune editor, was a Swift Boat skipper himself. Miner, a journalist, recalls his reaction:

“That’s it,” I thought, naively, after reading the first few paragraphs. “The issue’s off the table.”

And he was stunned to discover it wasn’t. The same feeling was there when Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe, appearing Aug. 19 on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, told John O’Neill, author of Unfit for Command and one of the veterans making the charges, “You haven’t come within a country mile of meeting first-grade journalistic standards for accuracy.” That’s what “keeps this story in the tabloids,” said Oliphant, but of course he was saying this not in the tabloids, but on the very respectable Newshour .

I don’t mean to say that I know exactly what happened that day. I believe that Mr. O’Neill, like anybody making a personal attack in politics, has to shoulder the burden of proof. It never leaves his shoulders until he satisfies it. And on this story, they haven’t even gotten to first base.

Note: They haven’t even gotten to first base and yet the Swift Boat Veterans were the big story in the weeks before the convention. There was a revealing moment at the end of that Newshour exchange. John O’Neill urged viewers to check out the Swift Vets’ website. Host Jim Lehrer, always mindful to make a show of balance, struggled for the name of a site rebutting the charges: “Is there a website that’s comparable to that?”

Yes there is, Oliphant replied. But instead of naming Media Matters he said: “it’s called the daily press, which is the most difficult thing for these guys to deal with.” But in fact it hasn’t been difficult at all, and that is what’s so stunning to Oliphant and company.

“For the moment, this story has consumed the news cycle,” wrote David Folkenflik in the Baltimore Sun on Aug. 25. “In an election where voters are eager for a sense of vision from each of the candidates, the swift-boat flap has drowned out discussion of current policy issues,” said Linda Feldmann of the Christian Science Monitor.

It’s the daily press that’s found the Swift Boat Veterans difficult to deal with— not the other way around. Thus Alison Mitchell, deputy national editor for The New York Times, told Editor & Publisher. “I’m not sure that in an era of no-cable television we would even have looked into it.” She sounded stunned in addition to being disdainful.

“Against their will,” wrote Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard, “the best-funded 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.”

Eric Bohlert writes in Salon today: “By the time the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times did deploy reporters to knock down the Swift Boat Vets’ rickety charges, they’d taken on a life of their own in the anti-Kerry netherworld of talk radio, right-wing bloggers and Fox News.”

“Knock down” suggests a world where political actors let charges fly, and journalists rule on them— in or out of order. The general conclusion in the press (and Bohlert’s view as well) is that the knock down ocurred in three news stories that appeared within days of each other:

Each of these stories is based on extensive reporting; and each throws serious doubt on some of the charges and motivations of Kerry’s attackers. But the very idea of the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times as adjudicators has itself been knocked down.

“There are too many places for people to get information,” James O’Shea told Editor & Publisher. He’s the managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, which joined in the knock down by publishing Rood’s story of what he saw in Vietnam. (See PressThink about that one). “I don’t think newspapers can be the gatekeepers anymore— to say this is wrong and we will ignore it. Now we have to say this is wrong, and here is why.”

Jonathan Last put it this way: “The combination of talk radio, a publishing house, blogs, and Fox News has given conservatives a voice independent of the old media.” Independence from the press is not an easy thing for the press to appreciate, but this is exactly what the Swift Boat Veterans have, I think, demonstrated.

While they do benefit from news coverage of their campaign—and from lazy, he said/she said journalism—the Swift Vets are capable of telling their own story on their website, publishing their own book and selling it to lots of people without benefit of good reviews, finding their own allies in the blog world (some of whom have large audiences), raising their own money, and of course running their own ads aimed at voters. Yesterday, they even began negotiating with John Kerry: admit your crimes and we’ll pull our ads, said the group in a letter to the candidate.

There is nothing this group needs Tom Oliphant for, except perhaps as foil in TV interviews. John Podhoretz, columnist for the New York Post, made that point this week. “The democratization of news,” to him a good thing, “isn’t a good thing if you’re a proud part of an Establishment whose authority is being eroded and whose control of the marketplace is being successfully challenged.” I think he’s mostly right about that. (See Jeff Jarvis on it.)

Podhoretz describes how it worked in the period from August 5 to 23. “Because there was new information coming out every day, there was more and more to discuss on talk radio and cable news channels. And the story just wouldn’t go away, because millions of people were interested in it.” In fact, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, nerve center for the Swift Boat story online, reported record traffic during this stretch.

Much of what Reynolds did was link to other anti-Kerry weblogs and information they dug up, connections they made, or inconsistencies they pointed out. It was therefore a group effort. And many of the bloggers involved—Power Line, Captain’s Quarters, Hugh Hewitt, Roger L. Simon being a few—are credentialed by the Party to cover the RNC.

But the excitement, as these players saw it, was not the sensational charges in the first ad— that Kerry didn’t deserve his medals and lied to get them. Rather, they were trying to show how often and how openly Kerry had lied or misstated the facts when at various times he talked about being in Cambodia on Christmas eve, 1968. (See this and this, for example.) They also pointed out how Kerry had changed his story. They reacted with gleeful derision when the campaign began to issue “clarifications” about Kerry in Cambodia.

In a posting from Aug. 21, John Hinderaker of Power Line observed that “what powers the blogosphere” is a core audience “that is engaged, passionate, and above all, well-informed.” But equally significant is the way participants in this world talk to each other and build on one another’s efforts. In a word— the links among them. Here’s how Hinderaker, a lawyer, put it:

A bunch of amateurs, no matter how smart and enthusiastic, could never outperform professional neurosurgeons… But what qualifications, exactly, does it take to be a journalist? What can they do that we can’t? Nothing. Generally speaking, they don’t know any more about primary data and raw sources of information than we do—often less… And we bloggers are not dependent on our own resources or those of a few amateurs. We can get information from tens of thousands of individuals, many of whom have exactly the knowledge that journalists could (but usually don’t) expend great effort to track down—to take just one recent example, the passability of the Mekong River at the Vietnam/Cambodian border during the late 1960s.

I can hear the chucking this sort of thing causes in professional newsrooms and J-schools. But the basic point Hinderaker makes is the same one Dan Gillmor, a journalist, develops at length in his new and essential book, We the Media. “My readers know more than I do,” Gillmor is famous for saying. That’s readers, in the plural. Bloggers are putting that insight to work because they aren’t as threatened by it.

The press can laugh at all these claims, and some will do that. But the political press should not be laughing. Reporters at the Republican Convention this week confront a changed race— altered in their own minds by the Swift Boat Vets and the charges they have broadcast. Two weeks before the convention, the common perception was: very close, edge is to Kerry. As Andrew Sullivan wrote on Aug. 28, “I crunched the numbers and found that, from the polling so far, this race was John Kerry’s to lose unless the dynamic of the election suddenly changed.” Other journalists who knew the numbers held the same view.

But that shifted in the final week of August, and on the day the convention opened political journalists had a gut feeling that the landscape was different— even though “the story,” as they call it, had been knocked down in the press and the people telling it stood “exposed for multiple lies and distortions,” as William Greider wrote in The Nation.

“They hate the Swift-boat story,” Podhoretz wrote. “Hate it with a passion. Some of it’s based in genuine conviction. Some of it’s patently ideological. And some of it’s based in fear.”

To me, it’s quite proper for journalists to hate the campaign launched by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. About the merits of the charges, I hold the same view Sullivan holds: the original ad is a classic smear job— ugly, brutal, demagogic, paranoid, cynical, dishonest in the extreme. And—a point that has not been stressed enough—it dishonors and degrades everyone who comes into contact with it. Take this episode, for example.

“It’s a smear because it mentions no facts,” Sullivan writes. “It cannot therefore be rebutted.” But it’s more than that. The ad is also an example of what author Douglas Rushkoff calls a “media virus.” The host is the news media, which in its weakness reacts to sensational charges and thereby aids in their spread.

Kerry didn’t deserve his medals because he lied to get them and other veterans know it. He’s no hero. Nor is he an ordinary liar. He’s a monster of deceit, and a master of concealment. It says a lot that George W. Bush will not criticize that ad, that people associated with Bush have helped the Swift Vets circulate it, and that tactics like this have been tried before against Bush’s opponents. It says a lot, I think, when intelligent people write things like “the medals are a distraction,” as Reynolds did. There he’s trying to avoid the degradation, but it is not that simple.

For those in the press who want to understand what’s going on, I recommend the Aug. 24th blog post by Matt Wretchard at Belmont Club:

The undercard in the Kerry vs Swiftvets bout is Mainstream Media vs. Kid Internet, two distinctly different fights, but both over information. The first is really the struggle over the way Vietnam will be remembered by posterity; whether its amanuensis will be John Kerry for the antiwar movement or those who felt betrayed by them. The victor in that struggle will get to inscribe the authoritative account of that mythical conflict in Southeast Asia: not in its events, but in its meaning. The fight will be as bitter as men for whom only memory remains can be bitter. But the undercard holds a fascination of its own. The reigning champion, the Mainstream Media, has been forced against all odds to accept the challenge of an upstart over the coverage of the Swiftvets controversy.

To say, “I don’t think newspapers can be the gatekeepers anymore,” as James O’Shea did, is to recognize an historic shift in the politics of information. It’s the sort of thing that can leave you stunned, angry, confused and depressed, if you have always thought of yourself as keeper of the gate. On the other hand, “My readers know more than I do” is a more hopeful statement. Maybe journalists who realize they are ex-gatekeepers will find their own way to Gillmor’s wisdom.

For purposes of contemplation, I leave you with this exchange, overheard on CNN, Aug. 20:

JILL DOUGHERTY And they’re also, apparently, according to the campaign — will be trying to depict John Kerry as out of the mainstream. Kyra…
KYRA PHILLIPS: Jill Dougherty live from Crawford, Texas, thanks so much. And so, will the swift boat veterans controversy sway your vote this November? Email us, email us your comments at We’ll read them later in the show.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD: Well now, out to the West Coast. The lead detective who directed the search of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch is scheduled to testify today as a pretrial hearing in that case resumes. For the latest, we turn to Miguel Marquez, who’s live from Santa Maria, California. Miguel…

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links

Also see, on all these themes, Godzilla vs. the ‘Blogosphere’ by Glenn Reynolds, Wall Street Journal, Sep. 1.

Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times, Aug. 24:

There is the fog of war and then there is the fog of cable.

Over the last few weeks, 24-hour news networks have done little to find out what John Kerry did in Vietnam, but they have provided a different kind of public service: their examination of his war record in Vietnam illustrates once again just how perfunctory and confusing cable news coverage can be. 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.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 1, 2004 10:45 PM