Why the press has a credibility gap
The Columbia Journalism Review thinks the press is doing a lousy job in this election year:
When Kerry called on Bush to condemn the Swift Boat ads, the White House pointed out that the president had himself been the target of harsh attack ads run by independent "527" groups supporting Kerry, and repeated its months-old contention that all such outside advertising should be banned.
The press dutifully reported this argument. But rarely if ever did reporters see fit to assess the validity of the comparison the Bush campaign was making. The anti-Bush ad most often cited by the White House as comparable to the Swift Boat spot was a MoveOn ad that questioned the president's service in the National Guard. But each one of the claims made in the MoveOn ad -- that Bush used family connections to get into the Guard, that he was grounded after failing to show up for a physical, that he wasn't seen at a Guard meeting for months, and that he was released eight months early to attend Harvard Business School -- is not in dispute. The overall tenor of the ad is harsh, to be sure -- so harsh, in fact, that Kerry quickly called it "irresponsible" -- but there's been no real argument that any of its assertions are untrue.
Compare that to the Swift Boat ads. Given that military records support Kerry's version of events, and that the credibility of many of Kerry's accusers is now in doubt, it would seem that if anyone should be on the defensive for lacking corroboration and documentation, it's those defending Bush's service record, not Kerry's. No anti-Bush ad from MoveOn has flown in the face of the preponderance of evidence in the way that the Swift Boat ad does. The press, then, should have pointed out the illogic of grouping the two spots as one and the same.
In the end, as always, the information that voters receive depends entirely on the way in which the press frames the story. The problem is that once an easy storyline is entrenched -- that Kerry and his detractors disagree -- too many reporters fail to press on. In this case, they neglected to either test the veracity of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth or to compare their ads with those financed by other 527s like MoveOn.
There have been dozens of press failures during this presidential campaign. But this one, even given the Times' and the Post's belated efforts to get to the bottom of things, has to rank as a low point.
In the end, the whole ball of wax certainly did nothing to help the mainstream press' credibility with what is an increasingly dubious audience.
I hope editors and news directors read this. The people at CJR are performing a public service with their Campaign Desk media critiques -- and they're finding a helluva lot to criticize. It's bad enough when people get their "information" from Faux News; it's even worse when the legitimate news outlets fail to provide the necessary corrective to administration propaganda.