Tuesday's must-reads

By Geraldine Sealey
Published August 24, 2004 1:47PM (EDT)

The Washington Post recaps the latest Swift Boat developments, with John Kerry producing more Vietnam veterans to vouch for him and George W. Bush refusing to condemn the bogus ads of the anti-Kerry Swift Boat group working on his behalf.

"In a conference call with reporters arranged by the campaign, three Navy Swift boat officers who served with Kerry 35 years ago but who said they have not been in touch with him for years defended his service and his bravery. Rich McCann, Jim Russell and Rich Baker said Kerry served honorably and took issue with questions raised by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth about his commendations."

" ... President Bush yesterday repeated his condemnation of unregulated money that he said was 'pouring' into the political process. But he stopped short of denouncing the ad by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which is being aired in three battleground states and is funded largely by Republicans."

"But, pressed several times by reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., about whether he would specifically condemn the ad, Bush would only say: 'That means that ad and every other ad. I'm denouncing all the stuff.'"

In an analysis, the New York Times' Alessandra Stanley blames the "fog of cable" for much of the confusion over the accusations of the SBVT against Kerry. While the charges leveled against Kerry are easily checked against the record: Military documents, eyewitness accounts and the previous, contradictory statements of many of those now condemning Kerry, it's never quite that simple on cable TV, where one screaming Republican vs. one screaming Democrat somehow is supposed to equal balance, even if the truth is never ferreted out and the scurrilous charges remain unchecked.

Stanley writes: "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. Somehow, on all-cable news stations -- CNN as well as Fox News -- a story that rises or falls on basic and mostly verifiable facts blurs into just another developing news sensation alongside the latest Utah kidnapping or the Scott Peterson murder trial. (It is particularly confusing on Fox News, where so many of its blond female anchors look like Amber Frey.)"

" ... Yesterday, President Bush denounced all third-party campaign ads, including the ads by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and called his opponent's war record admirable. Fox anchors made note of that development, then raced back to the disparaging remarks former Senator Bob Dole made to CNN on Sunday about Mr. Kerry's Purple Heart medals. ('Never bled that I know of,' said Mr. Dole, who was badly wounded in World War II.)"

"That kind of air-kiss coverage is typical of cable news, where the premium is on speed and spirited banter rather than painstaking accuracy. But it has grown into a lazy habit: anchors do not referee -- they act as if their reportage is fair and accurate as long as they have two opposing spokesmen on any issue."

In Editor & Publisher, newspaper editors explain their own dilemmas in covering the Swift Boat circus. The early question for many editors was: Do we scrutinize these allegations right away and risk elevating the group's status? For most papers, the answer was no. But now many are playing catch-up to correct the record blurred by talk radio and cable TV coverage.

"Alison Mitchell, deputy national editor for The New York Times, points to the changing media landscape and its impact on what newspapers choose to cover. 'I'm not sure that in an era of no-cable television we would even have looked into it,' she said. But Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said newspapers can still drive their own agenda. ... Downie said he believes the Swift Boat Veterans coverage had been fair and properly scrutinizing. 'We have printed the facts and some of those facts have undermined Kerry's opponents,' he said. 'We are not judging the credibility of Kerry or the (Swift Boat) Veterans, we just print the facts.' "

"He defended a lengthy Post story that ran Sunday which appeared to give equal credibility to both Kerry's version of the events in Vietnam (which is supported by his crewmates and largely backed up by a paper trail) and the Swift Boat Veterans, despite the fact that previous stories in the Post and the New York Times had debunked many of the group's accounts."

"On Monday, Michael Tomaskey (sic), writing for The American Prospect's Web site, took issue with Downie's decision: 'The Washington Post should not even be running such a story ... in the first place. Len Downie and the paper's other editors would undoubtedly argue that the story represents the Post's tenacity for getting to the truth, without fear or favor. But what the story actually proves is that a bunch of liars who have in the past contradicted their own current statements can, if their lies are outrageous enough and if they have enough money, control the media agenda and get even the most respected media outlets in the country to focus on picayune 'truths' while missing the larger story."

In an editorial on the Swift Boat story today, the Los Angeles Times tells its readers what the news pages cannot say in just four simple words: "These Charges Are False."

"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: Dukakis 'vetoed the Pledge of Allegiance'; Bill Clinton 'raised taxes 128 times'; "there are [pick a number] Communists in the State Department.' But 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 Dukakis' patriotism or Kerry's service in Vietnam. And they have been distracted from thinking about real issues (like the war going on now) by these laboratory concoctions."

Meanwhile, the USA Today reminds us that George W. Bush also has a military record.

"At a time when Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has come under fire from a group of retired naval officers who say he lied about his combat record in Vietnam, questions about President Bush's 1968-73 stint in the Texas Air National Guard remain unresolved:"

" -- 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?"

And back in this decade, two reports are due out this week on the Abu Ghraib scandal. The Washington Post today previews the Army's findings that "military police dogs were used to frighten detained Iraqi teenagers as part of a sadistic game, one of many details in the forthcoming report that were provoking expressions of concern and disgust among Army officers briefed on the findings."

"Earlier reports and photographs from the prison have indicated that unmuzzled military police dogs were used to intimidate detainees at Abu Ghraib, something the dog handlers have told investigators was sanctioned by top military intelligence officers there. But the new report, according to Pentagon sources, will show that MPs were using their animals to make juveniles -- as young as 15 years old -- urinate on themselves as part of a competition."

The New York Times provides details of an outside report to be released today that "has concluded that leadership failures at the highest levels of the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff and military command in Iraq contributed to an environment in which detainees were abused at Abu Ghraib prison and other facilities."

The report "does not explicitly blame Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for the misconduct or for ordering policies that condoned or encouraged it. But the panel implicitly faults Mr. Rumsfeld, as well as his top civilian and military aides, for not exercising sufficient oversight over a confusing array of policies and interrogation practices at detention centers in Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq, officials said."

The Washington Post takes stock of Ralph Nader's ballot access struggles: "Ten weeks before the 2004 presidential election, Ralph Nader is mired in a painstaking struggle to get his name on the ballot in a host of states he contested four years ago."

"Yesterday, Michigan election officials deadlocked over whether to accept Nader's petition to be on the ballot as an independent candidate, which Democrats argued was riddled with fraud, sending the issue to an appeals court."

"Earlier in the day, a federal court in Illinois denied Nader's challenge to state election laws, which Nader said are too hostile to independent candidates because the June 21 deadline for submitting a petition to get on the ballot is too early and the number of signatures required (25,000) poses too high a barrier."

"Dogged by an unprecedented public relations and legal campaign against him by the Democratic Party and like-minded groups -- which fear that his candidacy will swing the election to President Bush -- the longtime consumer advocate has failed to meet qualifying standards for the ballot in Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas, and he faces other challenges to his petitions in numerous states; 17 more state filing deadlines occur in the coming weeks. ... A clear picture of which state ballots will list Nader -- who in 2000 was on ballots in 43 states plus the District -- may not emerge until early October, when most ballots are finalized."

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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