The Ten Worst Media Distortions of Campaign 2004

Ignoring, then Attacking the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth

Even before John Kerry used his Vietnam record to vault to victory in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, the national media frequently touted the Massachusetts liberal as a decorated, thrice-wounded war hero. But apart from interviewing the small group of Vietnam veterans who have campaigned with Kerry over the last two decades, national reporters did not seek out others to confirm or challenge the tales of Kerry’s valor and heroism. The networks' approach to questions about Kerry’s past is in stark contrast to the aggressiveness with which they pursued theories about Bush’s National Guard service.

Then on May 4, a group of more than 250 Vietnam veterans — including Kerry’s superior officers and many who served with him when he was a Swift Boat commander — launched a public challenge to Kerry’s version of Vietnam. At a press conference, they charged Kerry had greatly embellished his military record and betrayed his fellow Swift Boat veterans when he went before the Senate to make sweeping charges of American war crimes in Vietnam. Based on this record, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth declared Kerry “unfit” to serve as Commander in Chief.

pitts050404Yet the national media still offered little scrutiny of either Kerry’s service or his anti-war rhetoric. The ABC and NBC evening newscasts ignored the Swift Boat veterans’ press conference, while on the May 4 CBS Evening News Byron Pitts chose to impugn their integrity: “If you think this is just a group of concerned veterans, think again.”

On May 31, nearly four weeks after these veterans came forward, CNN NewsNight anchor Aaron Brown narrated a four-minute long Memorial Day account of John Kerry’s exploits in Vietnam that only quoted Kerry and the handful of veterans who had signed up for his presidential campaign. Brown’s panegyrical, event-by-event tribute to Kerry’s heroism — which could have passed as a Democratic National Committee infomercial — did not include a single syllable about the questions raised by the other Swift Boat veterans.

mitchell081004NBC Nightly News ignored the Swift Boat veterans for three months, until August 6. Then, after the veterans raised $150,000 for a TV ad — a tiny sum compared to what George Soros and had by then spent on anti-Bush ads — NBC aired a story suggesting that the ad was the scurrilous work of anti-Kerry forces exploiting a loophole.

“The ad is paid for by Bush contributors using a loophole in the McCain-Feingold law,” reporter Andrea Mitchell complained on the NBC Nightly News, adding “some of the same players organized anonymous attack ads against John McCain four years ago.”

TextBox2Earlier that day, on the August 6 Imus in the Morning on MSNBC, Mitchell told radio host Don Imus that the anti-Kerry vets were “grossly distorting the record, according to anybody who knows anything about Kerry’s record.” If that was true, then why didn’t Mitchell tell Nightly News viewers about Kerry’s real record, instead of merely grumbling about who paid for the TV spot?

ABC’s World News Tonight did not mention the existence of the anti-Kerry Swift vets until Kerry himself gave a speech attacking the credibility and integrity of his fellow veterans. Kerry’s speech on August 19 marked the point when the liberal media began to actively cover the story, but even then most of their scrutiny was reserved for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, not the candidate seeking the highest office in the land.

Peter Jennings, for one, was unhappy with even the puny amount of attention his network gave to the Swift Boat veterans’ charges. “The ads were demonstrably false,” he asserted at a New Yorker forum on October 2, suggesting that he and his colleagues should have been faster to exonerate Kerry: “If you look seriously at the coverage, I think you didn’t find the media quick enough to say these were demonstrably false, for the most part. And we did what we do tend to do in journalism sometimes, he said, she said, he said, she said.”

On the Bright Side: FNC Reported Kerry’s Cambodia Capitulation

On August 11, the Kerry campaign backtracked from John Kerry’s oft-repeated claim that he was in Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968, in what would have been a violation of international law by the U.S., but only the Fox News Channel cared and ran a full story on the admission prompted by John O’Neill’s book, Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry.

On FNC’s Special Report, anchor Brit Hume announced: “A new book about John Kerry has prompted a debate unlike any seen in modern presidential history: whether a decorated war veteran really is a hero. The Kerry campaign has dismissed the book as a political smear, but now the Kerry camp is making adjustments in key parts of a story Kerry has told about fighting in Cambodia.”

Reporter Major Garrett elaborated: “The Kerry campaign has been forced to admit errors in statements Kerry made in a 1979 Boston Herald article and in a 1986 Senate speech shown here in the Congressional Record about vivid memories of his leading a Swift Boat deep into Cambodia and taking enemy fire on Christmas Eve 1968.”

Garrett then showed a soundbite from Kerry’s designated surrogate, “Veterans for Kerry” spokesman John Hurley: “I don’t know that anyone can actually say whether or not they were in Cambodia.”

Garrett qualified Kerry’s new story: “The Kerry campaign also says Kerry was in Cambodia on a different mission with Navy Seals but can provide no date for that mission....In the past, Kerry has written that the Cambodian incursion on Christmas Eve was, quote, ‘seared into his memory.’” He then showed another clip from his interview with the pro-Kerry Hurley: “I think the experience is seared into his memory. I think that he knows that he was under fire in Cambodia. I think the date is what’s inaccurate, that it was just not Christmas Eve day.”