Swift boat attention creating confusion

Controversy drowns out other news


August 25, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Until the past few days, the more I read and the I more saw about the charges of a group of Vietnam War veterans who say John Kerry inflated the bravery he displayed in combat, the less I understood.

I knew the members of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth didn't like Kerry, but I didn't fully understand why. I knew they were calling him a liar, but I didn't entirely understand on what grounds. And I didn't really understand quite what to make of their claims - or why, as a citizen, I should care.

Where's the media when you really need them?

Conservative commentators say that the press initially responded to the allegations of the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth by paying scant attention. Here, for example, was columnist Jeff Jacoby in yesterday's Boston Globe: "Far from leaping on the charges that Kerry's Vietnam heroism had been greatly exaggerated, the mainstream media's initial reaction was to largely ignore them."

But that's not really true. Earlier in the year, the Globe itself had done deep spade work turning up old military records and interviewing several former comrades who contested how brave Kerry really was. When the Swift boat group held a news conference in May to unveil its initial allegations that Kerry had exaggerated his wartime record, a database search shows, the Globe devoted two front-page stories to the subject.

The Dallas Morning News, The Washington Post, Knight-Ridder newspapers, Scripps-Howard, Copley News Service, McClatchy newspapers, the Houston Chronicle, the Washington Times and United Press International were among those print news outlets that spent significant ink on the claims. Fox News Channel, CBS and MSNBC yielded significant air time to the Swift boat veterans group's contentions that Kerry wasn't under fire, really, and his wounds weren't terribly serious.

Other than the Globe, however, many of the reports relied heavily on the he-said, she-said straitjacket of conventional political reporting, and did little to shed light on the substance of the claims.

Some accounts failed to note that some of the impressively credentialed Kerry critics had no first-hand knowledge of the events in dispute. Several of the critics had earlier praised him for the same incidents. Many assertions were hunches, for which they had no proof, posing as fact. And ultimately, as many of the anti-Kerry veterans admitted, they were angered by his anti-war activism in the early 1970s - not his war record.

Conversely, some liberal observers argue there's no cause to scrutinize Kerry's war record so closely. After all, they say, he actually saw in combat in Vietnam, while President Bush was safely stowed in the Air National Guard in Texas and Alabama during the war years - and even then, the record is murky on whether he completely fulfilled his duties there.

But that's not right, either. In his run for the White House, Kerry placed his war service squarely at the center of his campaign pitch. His primary bid was resurrected after a seemingly disastrous winter when a Republican veteran surfaced to say Kerry had saved his life under fire. Many fellow Swift boat veterans have given testimonials to Kerry's character as a way of proving to demonstrate he's not squeamish about the use of force. And the group of veterans arrayed against Kerry include a retired admiral and several commanding officers. Their objections should have been heard - and then should have been given rigorous examination.

One of the consistently skeptical voices in all this was that of satirist Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show. And, in fact, last night, that's where Kerry appeared to address his Swift boat critics in his first full interview on the subject. Stewart asked, as a mock anchor, the hard-hitting question: "I understand apparently you were never in Vietnam?"

Kerry replied, jokingly, "That's what I understand, too, but I'm trying to find out what happened."

Last week, three major newspapers made significant contributions to sorting through the historical record. Michael Dobbs of The Washington Post secured old Naval records showing some inconsistencies in Kerry's accounts over the years - but nothing that backed the anti-Kerry veterans' claims that he had exaggerated his combat activities.

Two reporters for The New York Times documented ties between the Bush camp and the financial backers of television ads - given a limited run in a few key swing states - that gave additional life to the anti-Kerry claims. And one of Kerry's fellow Swift boat commanders who is an editor for the Chicago Tribune (a corporate sibling to The Sun) gave a first-hand account of the episode that led to Kerry's Silver Star. It was a spare, factual article, driven by the journalist's controlled anger at those who, he said, were seeking to discredit Kerry but who had also cast aspersions on other veterans who served there.

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