In light of the current torrent of public discussion about John Kerry and his Vietnam record, it can't be too long before the barons of the established mainline media will be dragged into a people's court for a show trial in which they may feel the urge to confess to their insufficiently inquiring journalistic minds. Luckily for them, this is America, and after their confessions there will be no gulags in their future -- only the re-write desk.
Mark the calendar. August 2004 is the first time that the major mainline media -- CBSNBCABCNEWYORKTIMESWASHINGTONPOST
PRESSETC. -- ignored a news story that nonetheless became known by two-thirds of the country within two weeks of it being mentioned by the "marginal" press.
It was only after a CBS poll showed that Kerry had lost a net 14 percent of the veteran's vote to Bush -- without aid of major media coverage or substantial national advertising -- that the major media outlets began to lumber, resentfully, in the vague direction of the story. And even then, they hardly engaged themselves in the spirit of objective journalism.
According to Editor and Publisher, the respected voice of official big-time journalism: "Chicago Tribune managing editor James O'Shea tells Joe Strupp the Swift Boat controversy may be an instance of a growing problem for newspapers in the expanding media world -- being forced to follow a questionable story because non-print outlets have made it an issue. "There are too many places for people to get information," says O'Shea. "I don't think newspapers can be gatekeepers anymore -- to say this is wrong, and we will ignore it. Now we have to say this is wrong, and here is why."
Now, there are two revealing statements there. First, it is odd to see Mr. O'Shea, an official, credentialed seeker of truth, complaining about "too many places for people to get information." He sounds like a resentful old apparatchik glaring at a Xerox machine in the dying days of the Soviet Union.
The second noteworthy statement is the hilarious complaint that they can no longer merely think a story is wrong and ignore it: "Now we have to say this is wrong, and here is why." It apparently escaped his thought process that if he hadn't yet investigated the story, it might not be "wrong." A seeker of truth in a competitive environment might have phrased the sentence: "Now we will have to report it to determine if it is right or wrong."
While Mr. O?Shea's confessions seem unintentional, the statement of New York Times deputy national editor Alison Mitchell is straightforward. Ms. Mitchell is one of the very best political reporters in the country. When I was Newt Gingrich's press secretary, we were covered regularly by her. While she was tough and unrelenting -- she was also impeccably fair and thorough. It therefore didn't surprise me to see her quoted in Editor and Publisher with the bluntly honest statement: "I'm not sure that in an era of no-cable television we would even have looked into it."
While she should be commended, as ever, for her unblinking honesty, what does that say about the mainline media? A candidate for president premises his campaign on his military record. Then 200 of his fellow officers, including almost his entire chain of command come out against him as unfit to command and appear to cite chapter and verse in support of their shocking judgment. And the newspaper of record would not "even have looked into it."
In light of developments, I wonder if the press barons are re-considering their prior news judgments. After all, even though big media has done exactly what Chicago Tribune Editor O'Shea said they would do -- try to prove the Swift Boat critics wrong; the record is, at best, mixed.
In fact, Fox News reported Monday that the Kerry campaign has said it is possible his first purple heart was awarded for an unintentionally self-inflicted wound -- just as the Swift Boat critics alleged in their book.
Even Mr. Kerry's people have admitted the Swift Boat critics were right about Christmas in Cambodia. Nor has big media yet been able to disprove the assertion of the critics that Kerry's purple heart wounds were mostly immaculate. As Senator Bob Dole, who spent a couple of years in hospital after his ghastly W.W. II wounds, said: "Three purple hearts and never bled that I know of."
The remaining allegations of non-combat are supported and contested by inconclusive but substantial evidence on both sides. Surely it was insufficient of big media to have decided, before investigating, that the charges were "wrong."
Some of the honorable members of big media are now doing some solid reporting on the subject. The Washington Post's David Broder in this week's column reported: " In a 2002 conversation, Kerry told me he thought it would be doubly advantageous that "I fought in Vietnam and I also fought against the Vietnam War," apparently not recognizing that some would see far too much political calculation in such a bifurcated record." Indeed, some of us would think that sounded remarkably like "I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it."
If big media returns to its duty to report even-handedly on this presidential campaign for the remaining two months, there may be no need to ship them off to show trials and re-education camps.