This time the press doesn't wait to hit a switfboater's claims

by Greg Mitchell, Editor and Publisher

(August 15, 2008) -- Four years ago this month, with E&P’s Joe Strupp, I explored in a number of articles the belated or conflicted media response to the “swiftboating” of Sen. John Kerry, then the Democratic nominee for president. The mainstream press gave the charges-- carried in ads, in books and articles, and in major TV appearances -- a free ride for a spell, then a respectful airing mixed with critique, before in many cases finally attempting to shoot them down as overwhelmingly exaggerated or false. This delay, along with Kerry’s own reluctance to face the matter squarely, quite possibly cost the Democrat the White House.

Now, this month, a bestselling anti-Obama book -- by a co-author of the most prominent “swiftboat” anti-Kerry book in 2004 -- has predictably been published (by Mary Matalin's imprint) and has gained immediate and wide attention in the mainstream. But this time, in many cases, the media response has been a "swift" kick to its credibility.

On Wednesday night, for example, when that author, Jerome Corsi, appeared with Larry King on CNN, he was forced to debate an antagonist, Media Matters’ Paul Waldman -- and, for much of the time, King himself. Waldman was even able to air some of Corsi’s revolting Web comments in the years before he became famous as a swiftboater.

A Washington Post editorial for Friday's paper calls Corsi an "expert of misrepresentation," and adds, "footnoting to a discredited blog item does not constitute careful scholarship, and the bulk of Mr. Corsi's book has nothing to do with issues. He gets facts wrong. ... He makes offensive statements."

Mincing few words, Post columnist Eugene Robinson declares today, "Here come the goons, right on schedule." Corsi, he adds, "has crawled back out from under his rock to spew vicious lies about Barack Obama."

A New York Times blog item on Thursday connected Corsi to the "9/11 Truth" fringe, citing his questions about the official explanation of why the twin towers collapsed. Earlier this week, in a front-page article, the Times charged, "Several of the book’s accusations, in fact, are unsubstantiated, misleading or inaccurate."

Among the other Corsi pieces this week one stands out. It appeared Thursday night via The Associated Press, written by one of its top political reporters, Nedra Pickler -- a journalist the liberal blogosphere has frequently criticized. It covered the Obama campaign’s release of a 40-page book parsing of Corsi’s “The Obama Nation” but, significantly (in the new “AP style”), Pickler added a huge dose of attitude as well. Adding to the Obama team's argument, Pickler observed on her own:

-- "The book is a compilation of all the innuendo and false rumors against Obama — that he was raised a Muslim, attended a radical, black church and secretly has a 'black rage' hidden beneath the surface. In fact, Obama is a Christian who attended Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago."

-- "Corsi suggests, without a shred of proof, that Obama may be using drugs today. Obama has acknowledged using marijuana and cocaine as a teenager but says he quit when he went to college and hasn't used drugs since."

-- "He claims Obama received extensive Islamic religious education as a boy in Indonesia, education that was only offered to the truly faithful. Actually, Obama is a Christian and as a boy he attended both Catholic school and Indonesian public schools where some basic study of the Koran was offered."

-- "He accuses Obama of wanting to weaken the military even though Obama's campaign calls for adding 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines."

-- "Corsi writes for World Net Daily, a conservative Web site whose lead headline Thursday was "Astonishing photo claims: Dead Bigfoot stored on ice."

-- "In a series of Web posts several years ago, Corsi said Pope John Paul II was senile and unconcerned about sexual molestation of boys, referred to Islam is "a worthless, dangerous Satanic religion" and suggested Kerry was secretly Jewish."

To contrast this with what happened in the last campaign, here is an excerpt from an E&P article written by Strupp in late August, 2004.
James O'Shea, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, said the critical approach may have been a bit late, considering that the Swift Boat Veterans ads came out two weeks ago. "I don't think there has been enough scrutiny until now," he said. "Prior to this, we weren't giving it enough attention ...

"There are too many places for people to get information," O'Shea said. "I don't think newspapers can be the gatekeepers anymore -- to say this is wrong and we will ignore it. Now we have to say this is wrong, and here is why."

[Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard] Downie said he believes the Swift Boat Veterans coverage had been fair and properly scrutinizing. "We have printed the facts and some of those facts have undermined Kerry's opponents," he said. "We are not judging the credibility of Kerry or the (Swift Boat) Veterans, we just print the facts."

He defended a lengthy Post story that ran Sunday which appeared to give equal credibility to both Kerry's version of the events in Vietnam (which is supported by his crewmates and largely backed up by a paper trail) and the Swift Boat Veterans, despite the fact that previous stories in the Post and the New York Times had debunked many of the group's accounts.

On Monday, Michael Tomaskey, writing for The American Prospect's Web site, took issue with Downie's decision: "The Washington Post should not even be running such a story ... in the first place. Len Downie and the paper's other editors would undoubtedly argue that the story represents the Post's tenacity for getting to the truth, without fear or favor. But what the story actually proves is that a bunch of liars who have in the past contradicted their own current statements can, if their lies are outrageous enough and if they have enough money, control the media agenda and get even the most respected media outlets in the country to focus on picayune 'truths' while missing the larger story."

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey