The media do not cover a presidential campaign as though it were one long, seamless story. Through the eyes of the media, each campaign is more like a book, with distinct set pieces, improbable plot shifts, and cliffhangers aimed at whetting the audience's interest in the chapters to come. In this race so far, we've already read "The Triumph of Howard Dean" (late 2003), "Kerry's Amazing Comeback" (winter), "When Bushies Attack" (spring), "Reporting for Duty" (July), and "The Revenge of the Swifties" (August).
Sometime around Labor Day, the story line began to shift again. Maybe it was the boredom of having to cover the Republican National Convention, which could have been titled "When Bushies Attack II." Maybe it was a sense that Kerry's torment had gone on long enough. Whatever the case, the battering to which the media had subjected the Democratic candidate for the previous five weeks eased ever so slightly, as new twists and turns arose that put Bush on the defensive.
It began with a sensational if dubious splash. On Sept. 5, the Sunday edition of London's Daily Mail offered a sneak preview of gossip diva Kitty Kelley's new book, The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty. Kelley claims, among other things, that George W. Bush snorted cocaine at Camp David in 1989, while his father was president; that he may have helped a girlfriend get an abortion; and that his future wife, Laura Welch, both smoked and sold pot when she was a student at Southern Methodist University, in Texas. The mainstream media, for the most part, approached Kelley's book with tweezers and rubber gloves, which probably was not a bad idea. But The Family zoomed to number one on Amazon.com -- and on the same day that Kelley began three mornings of interviews on NBC's Today show.
Then, on Sept. 7, at a campaign appearance in Des Moines, Vice-President Dick Cheney came within millimeters of asserting that Osama bin Laden wants Kerry to win. "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States," Cheney said. No real surprise there. Scaring the hell out of the public has been the overriding theme of the entire Bush-Cheney campaign. This time, though, the media uproar was immediate and loud, forcing Cheney to say several days later that he didn't really say what everyone knew he had said.
It got only worse the following day, when the newspapers all ran headlines about American military deaths in Iraq topping 1,000. That morning, The Boston Globe reported that Bush had failed to sign up with a Boston-area National Guard unit, as he was obligated to do, after he began attending Harvard Business School in 1973. Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett had to admit that he'd misspoken in 1999 when he'd told The Washington Post otherwise. Also, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about a former military officer named Bob Mintz, who told a pretty convincing tale of having looked for Bush and having been unable to find him when Bush was supposedly serving in Alabama in 1972.
BUT NEXT CAME THE INEVITABLE PLOT TWIST. That night, CBS's 60 Minutes weighed in with perhaps the most widely seen piece to date on Bush's National Guard non-service. And the once-great news organization blew it. Dan Rather interviewed Kerry fundraiser Ben Barnes, a former Speaker of the Texas House and a former lieutenant governor, who said he -- much to his sorrow -- had helped Bush and other well-connected young Texans avoid combat service in Vietnam by securing them posts in the National Guard. The program also featured four newly discovered documents allegedly written by Bush's then-commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, that shed light on the future president's failure to take a required physical while he was in the Guard, and on the special treatment he had received. Within 24 hours, though, it was clear that CBS had a fiasco on its hands. Driven largely by conservative Weblogs, credible allegations were made that the documents had been forged. Barnes' own daughter accused her father of lying. CBS and Rather both apologized, and CBS named retired Texas National Guard official Bill Burkett as the source of the documents.
The plot that seemed to be emerging before the 60 Minutes report aired -- a wide-ranging attack on Bush -- may have been derailed, at least temporarily. The cover line on the current issue of Newsweek is "The Slime Campaign," with images of two small television sets, one featuring Kerry, one featuring Bush, each in their military uniforms. The article, by Howard Fineman and Michael Isikoff, contends that this is "the most vituperative presidential campaign since the divisive days of Richard Nixon."
Indeed it is, though Fineman and Isikoff's construct is misguidedly evenhanded. If this campaign is destined to be fought over who did what in the 1960s and '70s, the media need to tell the public the truth: that the claims raised against Kerry by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have been almost entirely discredited by their own past statements, by the official record, and by what Kerry's crew members say. In contrast, there is no question Bush knew that by serving in the Texas Air National Guard he would almost certainly avoid Vietnam. And there are reams of evidence to suggest that Bush blew off a significant part of his Guard obligation.
IT'S NEITHER SURPRISING NOR UNEXPECTED that the public is not getting the discussion it deserves. Despite Bush's misguided and mismanaged war in Iraq, a sputtering economy, and legitimate questions about Kerry's seeming inability to articulate in a compelling way what he would do differently, the media are mired in the same attack/counterattack paradigm that characterizes presidential-campaign coverage every four years.
But the fact that the swift-boat vets and the National Guard allegations have dominated campaign coverage is one thing; the way that different types of media cover them is another. The swift-boat story is Exhibit A. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, points out that the cable news channels, in particular, have all too often simply given a forum to various attackers, letting them have their say and washing their hands of the consequences, allowing the viewers back home to figure it out -- even though they generally lack the information they need to do so. In contrast, the print media thoroughly discredited the swift-boat vets.
"Journalism should do more than be a conduit for allegations or even a forum for debate. It has a responsibility to figure out who's telling the truth," says Rosenstiel. Speaking of the swift-boat vets, he adds, "It seems to me that if something has been established as unsubstantiated, putting them on to answer that is fair, but continuing to put them on -- if the common knowledge now is that these allegations are false, it's not enough. Then you're actually distorting the public knowledge."
The National Guard story represents a different kind of dilemma. Despite CBS' problems, the overwhelming weight of the evidence about Bush appears to be true. But is it relevant? During the 2000 campaign, The Boston Globe was almost alone among the national media in pushing the Guard story. This time, though, the National Guard story is getting much more play. On the surface, at least, this is odd. After all, Bush now has been president for three and a half years, and if nothing else, the public has had an opportunity to see what kind of commander-in-chief he's been. Given that, shouldn't the Guard story have been bigger in 2000 than it is in '04?
"The answer to that is pretty simple," says Walter Robinson, editor of the Globe's Spotlight Team. "Four years ago national security was not an issue. In fact, it was hardly an issue at all. Number two, Gore was reluctant to raise it because he was the vice-president under a president who had, to put it charitably, avoided any service at all. The third reason, which I think is something only another journalist will understand, is that when we wrote that story back in May 2000, all of the news organizations had already done their major Bush-bio pieces. It's hard for reporters to acknowledge that they missed something. So there wasn't the kind of inclination to pick it up."
Besides, as media and political sages have observed since Watergate, if not before, it's not the original wrongdoing, it's the cover-up. In the case of Bush and the National Guard, it's not even clear there was wrongdoing. It may have been more a matter of the entitled scion of a prominent family taking advantage of opportunities that weren't available to other young Texans. The problem is that Bush has never fessed up to that. (It should be noted, too, that CBS' document-verification problems have nothing to do with what the Globe has reported -- a distinction that unfortunately may be lost on the public.)
"The records that have surfaced in the last four years on Bush directly contradict some parts of his biography, which he highlights in his own autobiography," says Robinson. "For me it's a question of, you do the research and you report the results. People can draw their own conclusions about it."
WE'VE SEEN IT BEFORE. A sleazy tabloid story bubbles up into the mainstream media. The conduit: Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, who, in the course of reporting on how news organizations are planning to handle a rank-smelling tale, winds up giving other journalists permission to talk about it. National Journal media critic William Powers, back when he was with The New Republic, once wrote an entire column on Kurtz's role in advancing stories that were not quite yet ready to jump the species barrier (to borrow a phrase from Slate's Jacob Weisberg).
Kurtz was at it again last week as the Kitty Kelley mini-furor grew. On Sept. 8, he reported on how U.S. media outlets were planning to handle the book. (Answer: very carefully.) The next day, Kurtz wrote that Sharon Bush, a former sister-in-law of the president, had denied being a source for Kelley's claim that Bush had snorted coke at Camp David. In fact, the caution that many news organizations are showing with regard to The Family appears to be wise. When Kelley was interviewed on the Today show, an unusually prosecutorial Matt Lauer got Kelley to admit that the Bush-and-cocaine story was based on just one confidential source, with Sharon Bush -- at best -- merely confirming that she'd heard the same story. "I never said she saw it, Matt, but she did confirm it over lunch," Kelley said.
"I wrestle with this dilemma all the time," Kurtz told me. "How do you write about something that is going to make a splash in the media without serving as an echo chamber for allegations that you have not personally confirmed?" He added: "Once I learned that the Today show would be putting on Kitty Kelley for three straight mornings and that White House and Republican Party officials were willing to trash the book on the record, it was clear that this was going to be an important-enough event to write about. But I have tried to be very careful about not retailing or recycling allegations that I can't vouch for, and for which I don't know what kind of evidence Kelley has."
It's hard to know whether any of this will make a difference. Hard-core Kerry supporters, angered over the swift-boat ads and their ties to forces friendly to Bush, may only be more determined than ever to defeat a president they see as an illegitimate warmonger. The attacks on Bush may redound to his benefit as well. His political guru, Karl Rove, has said that the key to Bush's victory are the four million evangelical Christians who did not bother to vote four years ago. According to Steven Waldman, editor-in-chief of Belief.net, the more Bush comes under fire, the more evangelicals may rally to his side.
"In the evangelical Christian community, the more he's attacked, the better off he is," says Waldman. "They already think he's one of them, and now they also think he's being persecuted, which fits their sense that Christians in general are being persecuted in America." And though the ideal scenario for Bush is to be seen as under attack for his faith, even his personal failings can be an asset, as long as they took place before he quit drinking and was born again. "They take it as a given, in fact as a positive, that he used to be a louse," Waldman says. "That's part of what makes him so inspiring -- the fact that he once was lost but now he's saved." On the other hand, Waldman warns that if the Camp David cocaine story were somehow proved true, it could harm Bush, because Kelley claims it happened several years after Bush's come-to-Jesus moment. Given the sourcing to which Kelley admitted on Monday, it would not appear that Bush has much to worry about.
ABC News' online political dope sheet, "The Note," recently offered a rare instance of introspection. "As long as political reporters -- rather than reporters who cover health care, economics, and military affairs -- dominate election coverage," the Note-ster wrote, "there will always be more emphasis on narrative that implicitly celebrates tactical cleverness and bare-knuckles ruthlessness over narrative that celebrates ideas."
Tom Rosenstiel puts it another way. "Even if you assume the worst about each of these allegations, their relevance is arguably less important than the public record of each of these guys in the last two years." But, he adds, "You go out on more of a limb if you say we're going to assess the presidency of George Bush than you do if you say, hey, here's a guy who's alleging something, we're going to put it on the air."
So here we are in the midst of another presidential campaign, with the candidates and their allies attacking one another and the media reporting on everything other than what's at stake for the next four years. After every election, everyone says it's going to be different the next time. Then we do it all over again. It matters that the swift-boat charges against Kerry are false and that the National Guard charges against Bush are true, of course. But it matters even more that all of this is taking place against a backdrop of war, terrorism, economic woes and the worst climate for civil liberties in a generation. Is this all we've got to talk about?
Never mind a new chapter. It's time for someone to write a new book.
- Dale Stephanos