August 21, 2004

An old fashioned Fisking of the Boston Globe

The Holiday in Cambodia story has finally metastisized for John Kerry.

What's been interesting in following this is story is how the dynamics of media feeding frenzies are changing, courtesy of the blogosphere. Blogs are emerging as incubators capable of keeping stories alive, sorting out and winnowing the facts, and by nature of the story being out there, forcing major professional media to cover it whether they ultimately want to or not. Ask Trent Lott. Better yet, ask the NYU School of Journalism, which has this summary of the Harvard's Kennedy School study, “Big Media” Meets the “Bloggers" about the role of blogs in being reactive forces to keep stories alive until they get traction:

Still, the Post editors didn’t think much of Lott’s remarks as news, and they tried to confine Edsall to a paragraph or two. He had to write his 660-word story and show it to them before they could see any real news in it. This is where prominent webloggers like Josh Marshall, Atrios, Glenn Reynolds, but also others entered in. They and their readers (200,000 people at most) were a back-up alert system, another sphere where the story could circulate, register with people, and provoke a response. Reactions and rumblings from across the blogs were thus a kind of proxy for public reaction that had not been able to emerge.

But the blogs got only temporary custody of a story that originated in a small corner of the national press on December 6th, and became big news on December 10th, with just a few days (Dec. 6-9, 2002) for the blogs to operate as bridge narrator. "For the most part," Atrios says in the study, "the influence of blogs is limited to the degree to which they have influence on the rest of the media. Except for the very top hit-getting sites, blogs need to be amplified by media with bigger megaphones."

A key point. Weblogs may continue to exert some influence on the news, but it won't come by grabbing the attention of the broader public, gaining major traffic, or displacing the national press as a news source. Political blogs need the press; they are parasitic on the flow of news. They can still have an effect, however, by debating the mainstream news mind, correcting for errors and blind spots, further sifting and refining the flow. And by activating passions and commitments long ago driven from daily journalism, blogs force news through the argument test, which in this case showed that Lott had few defenders, Left or Right. That was news too.

The Web legend about Trent Lott's demise says “the blogs kept the story alive,” and this is basically accurate, but it misses why journalism needed weblogs for that.

So, is Atrios right? Is the influence of blogs limited to the degree which they have influence on the rest of the media? I think the answer is clearly yes at this point.

Case in point is Kerry and the Swift Vets, and this article from today's Boston Globe, the inhouse organ of the Kerry presidential campaign.


First of all, it would have been interesting to see such a headline on an article in the Globe when Farenheit 9/11 was released, something like "MEDIA BUZZ FROM LEFT-WING "DOCUMENTARY" MAKER AIDING ANTI-BUSH EFFORT: HITLER TOO AIDED BY "DOCUMENTARY" ABOUT 36 OLYMPICS, PARTY RALLY" but I digress.

As the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth previewed another ad to air next week, a survey released yesterday said their first controversial attack on John F. Kerry's war record reached more than half the nation with the help of a media buzz created by talk radio and cable news.

I'd like to take the opportunity to introduce the reporter, "Media Critic" Mark Jurkowitz (yes, that's his real name) to Glenn Reynolds: Mark, here's Glenn. He's been hard at work on this story during his lunchbreaks doing stuff that they don't teach at the fancy J-Schools now, like research (you know, going to the library and looking stuff up). What's been behind the surge on talk radio and cable news I would bet is sites like Instapundit, and as the study above indicated about the Trent Lott Affair blogs were "where the story could circulate, register with people, and provoke a response" has become even more true. But it's not just circulating and registering, it's the incubating: the photo showing the Congressional Record version of Kerry's Cambodia speech I think was what crystalized this for many people. Scrolling through Instapundit's archives of the past two weeks shows how the story has incubated and matured up to this point.

The first spot, which began airing Aug. 5 and ran only in West Virginia, Ohio, and Wisconsin, triggered a counterattack on several fronts this week. On Thursday, Kerry accused the veterans of doing President Bush's campaign's "dirty work." A front-page story in yesterday's New York Times raised questions about the credibility of Kerry's accusers.

Notice the passive-voice mention of the New York Times (which, by the way, Jurkowitz fails to mention, is the owner of the Boston Globe). "A front-page story in yesterday's New York Times raised questions about the credibility of Kerry's accusers." Notice no mention of an inquiry at all into the credibility of the accusations, because even now the Kerry campaign is in a "modified, limited hang-out" mode about Kerry's signature story of being in Cambodia on Christmas Eve, 1968--a story used again and again as a political club by the Senator---as being a complete fabrication. The strategy used here is akin to how the press reports salacious sex scandals by reporting not on the allegations themselves, but by reporting about the scandal itself. That way, they are "above" the fray. What's different here is that they are reporting on the "scandal" without touching on the allegations themselves: is what they have to say true? Is there any substance to the charges? Is it even worth investigating? Given the scrutiny with which similar types of charges were covered against President Bush about his military service, doesn't objectivity compel it? Or, does the press simply want Kerry to win?

And yesterday, the Kerry campaign filed a complaint against Swift Boat Veterans for Truth with the Federal Election Commission, claiming the group is illegally coordinating inaccurate ads with the Bush campaign.

Ahh, so campaign finance reform WAS about supressing campaign speech, not just about purging the temple of American politics from the dirty corruption of Mammon. Thought so.

Notice the key part about this, though: inaccurate. Has the NYT or its Boston Globe affiliate investigated that? Notice the reporting style here: raise questions about the credibility of the accuser, ignore the substance of the claims. Sounds like they've been consulting with Kobe Bryant's lawyers.

Despite the questions about the veterans group's motives and methods, a poll released yesterday by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey discovered a remarkable ripple effect for what survey director Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson characterized as "an ad that barely aired."

First, notice the slack-jawed tone of fear in the article: the ad barely ran and it reached half the respondents in a national poll with adverse results for their guy. Zoot alors!

Here's the key phrase: Despite the questions about the veterans group's motives and methods.... In other words, Despite our best efforts. We've undermined their credibility, now why won't the charges go away? How is this story getting out if NPR is ignoring it?

"In a lot of echo chambers, the echo is louder than the sound that made it in the first place," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

Nothing to see here folks, move along...

In a Globe interview, Jamieson said the media became preoccupied with the ad at a time "in which there isn't a lot of other political news. The competing stuff on cable is Laci Peterson and Michael Jackson, and the political people wanted something to talk about. . . . It had conflict, it had pictures, you've got drama."

It's only a story, you see, because there's nothing else on tee-vee now.

Chuck Todd, editor in chief of The Hotline, an online compendium of political news, remarked on the staying power of the flap over Kerry's war record. "Every day we've published since August 4 we've had a story [titled] 'Vietnam,' " he said. "Yesterday was day 15."

Actually, its been Day 215, since John Kerry--who, to steal from James Taranto, you might have heard served in Vietnam--won the Iowa Caucus. Kerry made the 4 months and 11 days he served in Vietnam the centerpiece--hell, the ONLY piece--of his convention. Twenty years in the Senate? Moi? Mike Dukakis' Lieutenant Governor? Ummmm, not ringing a bell. Must have been that other Kerry. Kerry told his detractors to "BRING. IT. ON!" and the men he accused of being a bunch of war criminals thirty three Aprils ago have done just that. And John Kerry is going to court to try and stop them (after they went to court to try to get Kerry to stop using war-time pictures of them, implying their support of the candidate).

Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, which tracks the talk radio industry, called the controversy over the ad and Kerry's war record "a major part of the election 2004 election story. You have a lot of conservative hosts on talk radio, many of them backing Bush claims . . . It blends into the discussion of the election. It's part of the number one topic."

Again, it's the center of the election right now because that's what Kerry made it to be. "Reporting for duty" anybody? Anybody? Bueller? Here's what we had to say about this back on February 19th:

I think Terry Mac made a terrible mistake by making the first issue of the general election be on the Bush/National Guard issue, as he always couched it in terms of John Kerry's "chest full of medals." The problem with that statement is the most memorable picture of Kerry is of him testifying before the Senate in 1971.

But this is the ground he chose for the fight, not his career in the Senate.

Yesterday, the veterans upped the ante by rolling out another ad as part of a $600,000 buy that will begin airing Tuesday in three states where "Kerry has touted his military service," according to the group's spokesman, Sean McCabe. The spot features several veterans harshly criticizing Kerry's 1971 Senate testimony about atrocities that occurred in Vietnam. A statement quotes Admiral Roy Hoffman, founder of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, saying, "What John Kerry did made Jane Fonda look like a Red Cross volunteer. It was terribly demoralizing."

Again, don't take Mark Jurkowitz's word for it, decide for yourself: here's the ad, here's the script.

The Kerry campaign responded with a statement condemning "another ad from a front group funded by Bush allies that is trying to smear John Kerry. The newest ad takes Kerry's testimony out of context, editing what he said to distort the facts." The campaign also released records that it says indicate that two of the principals in the ad "are Republican activists . . . It's no wonder the Bush campaign refuses to condemn this smear."

First of all, this isn't a smear: it's a vicious hard ball to the head. But a hardball isn't by definition a smear: a smear would be going and finding the greiving mother of the wounded Viet Cong guerilla Lt. (JG) John Kerry leaped from his Swift Boat to shoot, at close range, and asking how she felt when she got the news. Heck, it wouldn't matter if you actually found her, you could find the symbolic representation of the grieving mother crying over her lost son and exploit that for your political purposes. All in service of the greater truth, right?

Second of all, what about the Kerry campaign's coordination not only with, but also Michael Moore?

What does this all add up to?

In terms of the story itself, critical mass has been attained. The story cannot be contained now, and will develop until the charges are fully explored or those bringing the charges completely implode. Such is the nature of feeding frenzies.

But what this story points to is the larger issue of how blogs are changing the way the news is reported, as well as the failures of the larger professional media to live up to its own self image.

In the famous Pentagon Papers case New York Times v. United States Justice Potter Stewart wrote:

In the absence of the governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry--in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government. For this reason, it is perhaps here that a press that is alert, aware, and free most vitally serves the basic purpose of the First Amendment. For without an informed and free press there cannot be an enlightened people."

Except here it is the New York Times and the Boston Globe which is trying to exercise prior restraint not in the name of national security, but to protect the prospects of their chosen candidate. It is not a press that is alert, aware, and free, vitally serving the basic purposes of the first amendment. That job is increasingly being done by the unpaid and amateur (in the best, classic sense of the word) citizen bloggers.

Posted by Steve at August 21, 2004 06:46 PM | TrackBack

Great writing, Steve! Great work!

Posted by: Liz at August 22, 2004 10:05 AM

The part about Hoffman in Jurkowitz' article (A statement quotes Admiral Roy Hoffman, founder of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, saying, "What John Kerry did made Jane Fonda look like a Red Cross volunteer. It was terribly demoralizing.") is correct. He doesn't say it is in the ad, he says it is in a statement. Here is a link to the statement on the Swift Vets site where Hoffman says just that:

Here is the statement in full:
For Immediate Release
Friday, August 20, 2004

SwiftVets Launch Second Phase of Advertising Campaign

New Round of Television Ads Debuts in Selected Markets

August 20, 2004 - Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a non-partisan group representing more than 250 Swift Boat veterans who served with Senator John Kerry in Vietnam, announced the second phase of a grassroots and paid media campaign to tell the truth about John Kerry’s military service record and his treatment of fellow Vietnam veterans when he returned home from his brief tour of duty.

This phase centers on a new commercial, available for viewing at

The latest Swift Boat ad focuses on Kerry’s verbal attacks on many of his shipmates by featuring actual testimony from Kerry to the US Senate in 1971 and the reaction from his former Vietnam War comrades.

"When John Kerry returned to this country after his highly abbreviated tour of duty in Vietnam, he disgraced his uniform, he insulted his shipmates and fellow veterans and he greatly aided the enemy's ability to torture and humiliate American prisoners of war," said Admiral Roy Hoffmann, founder and chairman of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. "What John Kerry did made Jane Fonda look like a Red Cross volunteer. It was terribly demoralizing,” he continued.

“American POWs and veterans felt betrayed by Senator Kerry’s remarks about the soldiers serving in Vietnam,” said John O’Neill, author of Unfit for Command. “Many veterans have contacted us and are coalescing for this campaign,” he continued.

One of the veterans featured in the ad is Mr. Paul Galanti who served as chairman of the John McCain campaign in Virginia and was active in the organization “Veterans for Mark Warner,” Virginia’s current Democratic Governor.

The advertising buy will be more than $600,000 and the spots will be broadcast in three states where Kerry has touted his military service. Ads will start running on television stations on Tuesday of next week.

Media is asked to direct queries to Send feedback for Swift veterans to, and web site questions to

Thank you for your interest in Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Thomas C. Wyld

SwiftVets Communications

Posted by: Joe Zwers at August 23, 2004 10:37 PM
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