The big house-cleaning at CBS News after ;60 Minutes; aired its sloppily researched report on President Bush's National Guard service and the drumbeat of commentary about which Swift Boat veterans were believable ignored the real journalism ethics scandal: Why were the news media chasing down 30-year-old stories in the first place?
Yes, nominee "character" is important in an election, but cataclysmic events had occurred during President Bush's first term. Above all else, this election was a referendum on the president's responses to those events. Yet for a large chunk of the summer of 2004, campaign coverage was dominated by an examination of what the candidates did or did not do during the Vietnam War. Or, when the news media did report on the issues of the day, they gave name-calling precedence over fact-checking.
First, the news media's Vietnam Syndrome: When it became clear that Senator Kerry was going to be the Democratic nominee, the contrast between Kerry's and Bush's military service records was an irresistible story. Then, the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" called that contrast into question by impugning Senator Kerry's heroism. Then Kerry all but wore his medals to the Democratic National Convention, which prompted the Republicans to make fun of those medals at ;their; convention, which prompted the Kerry campaign to put the Bush campaign back on the defensive about the president's less-than-stellar stint in the Texas Air National Guard.
One could argue that in reporting on all these machinations, the press was just doing its job: Report the claims and counter-claims and let the public decide which ones, if any, are legitimate or relevant.
That sounds right, but it's disingenuous. Reporting confers legitimacy and relevance. Before they allow themselves to be used by this or that interested party, reporters and editors must first ask: Is this a story? How much of a story is it?
The New York Times concluded in a front-page story last August that "the accounts of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth prove to be riddled with inconsistencies. In many cases, material offered as proof by these veterans is undercut by official Navy records and the men's own statements." Yet the ;Times;, and countless other news outlets, had been reporting on the Swift Boat Veterans' allegations since May. (Some papers-notably The Boston Globe-had done their own digging into the official records, but the resulting stories didn't reach a national audience and weren't as juicy as those floated (or shot at) by political partisans.)
On the other side of the ledger, not even Bush's most ardent supporters ever claimed there was anything heroic about his National Guard service. All but the most ardent would concede that, like a lot of people, Bush probably joined the Guard in hopes of avoiding service in Vietnam. Yet this didn't seem to hurt him in 2000. Would a "smoking gun" memo hurt him in 2004? Not likely.
In defense of CBS and everyone else in the news business, one could also argue that covering the Vietnam-era stories and covering other campaign-related issues was not an either/or proposition: The news media had time and space to gave us plenty of both.
But newsroom resources are finite. Devoting a lot of staff time and airtime to one story has to take coverage away from something else.
And when a newspaper puts a certain story on page 1 or a newscast puts it at or near the top of a 22-minute program, it is saying to its audience, in no uncertain terms, that "this story is important."
Certainly, belittling the other guy's military service was important to both the Bush and Kerry campaigns. But was this Vietnam-era history and gossip important to voters? To borrow a line from Senator Kerry, the news media were focused on "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time."
This brings us to what the news media did when they focused on the here and now rather than on the there and then.
For a hypothetical example, let's say our strong, resolute president had accused the liberal flip-flopper from Massachusetts of meeting Osama bin Laden at a bathhouse in San Francisco or of voting in favor of pedophilia. Or, to be fair and balanced, let's say the decorated Vietnam veteran had accused the National Guard shirker of planning to end free e-mail or of relapsing into alcohol abuse in the White House.
You might think standard journalistic procedure is to verify the accuracy of the candidates' claims. But it isn't!;
Standard journalistic procedure is to call the opposing camp for a response. On the face of it, this seems only fair. When one side goes on the attack, you give the other side the opportunity to defend itself.
But shouldn't the reader or viewer have the defense deal with the facts (if any) of the accusation?
One would think so, but here are a few examples of actual "balancing" quotes in defending a candidate from an attack by his opponent between August 30 and October 12, 2004:
"Another flailing, baseless attack" from the Kerry campaign; the speech "was filled with misleading, baseless attacks;" Senator Kerry's comments were "baseless and hypocritical." (These are all from Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for President Bush's campaign.)
"George Bush's false attacks are just another desperate attempt to cover up his wrong choices that have taken the country in the wrong direction;" "It's a dishonest and disingenuous way to campaign for president and another pathetic attempt to play the politics of fear;" "Once again, the Bush campaign is insulting the basic intelligence of the public by resorting to tired and desperate tactics to cling to power." (These are all from Phil Singer, a spokesman for Senator Kerry's campaign.)
And so on. And so on. Instead of inspecting candidates' suit jackets and their surroundings for concealed recorders and transmitters, we should have been checking the spokesmen's necks for pull cords like the ones that gave the old Chatty Cathy doll her little repertoire of endearing remarks. Instead of playing presidential debate bingo we could have been playing campaign spokesman bingo, putting a marker on a square every time one of them used the words "tired," "flailing," "baseless," "desperate," "hypocritical," "untrue," "nonsensical," "inaccurate," "misleading," "false," "dishonest," "disingenuous," or whatever else can be found in a good thesaurus.
You might think that if reporters know what the spokesmen are going to say before they say it, they'd quit calling for comment or rebuttal. Uh-uh. The reporters call ;because; they know what the spokesmen are going to say. Political reporting involves two imperatives: Making sure every story is superficially fair and balanced and getting the job done quick.
Checking the accuracy of a candidate's claims is like being the president: It's hard work. But it's hard to see how the cause of good governance is served by these reporter-spokesmen exchanges.
I recently asked a veteran political reporter whether alerting readers when a candidate is straying from the facts wouldn't be more useful than quoting some political hack/spokesperson as saying, in effect, "Oh, yeah? Well, the other guy tortured bugs as a kid."
Journalists, he replied, should not "join the argument." In other words, when reporters call attention to dishonesty and distortion, they also call attention to themselves-and their supposed hidden biases. Journalism, my friend was saying, is better able to defend what's left of its reputation for objectivity when reporters leave the commentary to those who are openly biased and expected to be biased.
And anyway, my friend said, newspapers were fact-checking what was said on the campaign trail-just not in the campaign trail dispatches. This was true, but fact-check sidebars are too late in two senses: First, most papers did not begin running stand-alone fact-checking articles until the debates started in October. They would have been helpful almost from the moment the campaign became a two-man race.
Second, lies and distortions can gain currency-fast. The place to nip them in the bud is in the next paragraph, not on some other page or under some other headline.
Campaign coverage should have been about whether the September 11 attacks could have been thwarted, what the government was doing to prevent future attacks, the pursuit of Osama bin Laden, the toppling of Saddam Hussein by a military invasion, and the later occupation of Iraq.
Instead, the networks and the newspapers chewed up all that airtime and front-page real estate rehashing claims by partisan sources about how the candidates had served (or not served) their country when they were in their early 20s, or by repeating verbatim assertions by campaign spokespersons to create the appearance of fairness and balance.
That is the real media scandal that the nation's news outlets have yet to answer for.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2005 (16:2), pp. 10,22-23.