The Swift Boat Conundrum  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2004

The Swift Boat Conundrum   

How should the mainstream media deal with such stories?

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It's an age-old dilemma: How do you handle controversial, explosive charges made in the heat of a political campaign by people with painfully obvious axes to grind?

The traditional response of the big-time journalism gatekeepers--the big national papers, the networks--was to ignore them, particularly if there was something sketchy about them, as there so often is.

But what do you do in a world without gatekeepers?

That's the question journalism confronted after the self-designated Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched its ad

campaign claiming that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had lied, among other things, about his injuries in Vietnam.

The story rapidly became major news, not because of elite media outlets, but thanks to the cable news networks, talk radio and the Internet. The "issue" soon dominated the presidential race.

When that happens, it's pretty hard to primly turn away from the story.

I was reminded of the 1992 presidential campaign, when an obscure chanteuse named Gennifer Flowers proclaimed that she had had a 12-year affair with the Democratic presidential candidate at the time, one William Jefferson Clinton. This, of course, was in a dark, primitive era, with only one cable news network and without the Internet as we know it today.

The story broke in the tabloid Star, quickly spread to the New York tabs and little by little oozed its way into the mainstream media. But the New York Times, with the best of motives, barely acknowledged the story.

The problem: As time went on the Flowers story virtually paralyzed the Clinton campaign. But all but the most diligent Times readers would have had no clue about what had caused the paralysis.

Even Marvin Kalb of Harvard's Shorenstein Center, who had harsh criticism for news organizations that ran with the Flowers story, told the Boston Globe back then that "there is a time when a certain critical mass is reached, and by any professional standard you are dealing with a news story."

That critical mass develops exponentially more quickly in today's media landscape. And it's not going to change. The Wild West nature of the Internet is tailor-made for partisans, who gobble up such red meat. And no matter how much the purists fulminate, cable news, with that huge maw to fill and fierce competitive pressures, is going to wallow in Swift Boatery, at least until the next Laci Peterson comes along.

Years ago, during a game in Philadelphia's wonderful summer hoops extravaganza, the Baker League, one fan was outraged when her idol, Showboat Shannon, was called for traveling. "That's the man's move !" she exclaimed. "You can't take the man's move away from him!"

Swift-boat-like stories are cable's move, right up there with Laci and JonBenet. So, like it or not, Old Journalism is going to be drawn into the fray. The question is how to respond.

The most important contribution the big players can make is truthsquadding, taking a hard, penetrating look at the claims and counterclaims in sophisticated overviews. We saw that as papers including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post ran stories largely undercutting the allegations of the Swift Boaters (though the Post's was an odd piece of work, with a headline and top that seemed out of synch with the rest of the story).

When all manner of allegations are swirling around, the traditional media have the resources to sort it out. And they might as well jump on such endeavors quickly: This story had quite awhile to marinate until the deeper reporting appeared.

In daily coverage, the media's challenge is to cover the stories without inflating them--giving them modest play (until the charges are substantiated) instead of lurid headlines, providing context, carefully spelling out what has been established and what has been merely alleged.

That means stretching one of journalism's conventions. Of course, balance and fairness dictate that both sides of a story must be included. Always. But it doesn't mean they should get the same treatment. The he-said, she-said paradigm isn't good enough.

If reporting shows that the truth skews much more toward one combatant than the other, the story needs to make that clear. Not by inserting the writer's opinion, but by reiterating the facts. The alternative, giving equal weight to demonstrably unequal positions, is simply misleading.

I've long advocated leaving stories that are "out there"--well, out there. For the most part I still do. But in cases like the Swift boat saga, news organizations just don't have that luxury anymore.

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