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Issue Date:  October 22, 2004

Presidential race is clear as mud

Campaign battles compromise journalistic ethics


Not since Wisconsin Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, as in the classic Herblock editorial cartoon, crawled out of the sewer wielding his “anticommunist” bucket of slime in the 1950s have we seen a dirtier presidential campaign.

On the Sunday before the Republican National Convention, after the protest march from 33rd Street to Union Square, I encountered, propped against the park fence, a grizzled gentleman wielding a poster calling Senator John Kerry a traitor. I stopped to talk. He was a real Vietnam vet, he said. He had gone there twice and won real medals, while that fraud Mr. Kerry had “shot himself in the ass with salt.”

I asked quietly if he had read the detailed examination and refutation of the “Swift boat” accusations in The New York Times.

“No,” he replied. “I never read communist newspapers.”

His reply typified the level of political discussion over the past months.

Since the 1950s, however, mudslinging has become more complex.

Mr. McCarthy’s method was to call a hasty news conference at the end of the day, accuse State Department officials of being “reds” or “fellow travelers” and know that the papers would print the charges the next morning, without time to investigate whether they were true.

Today half the books on the bestseller lists are campaign attacks. Today’s smear starts in a whisper or on a Web site, spreads to talk radio, pops up on cable news and is repeated subtly by high-level surrogates -- as when Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush were trotted out to reiterate the slurs against Mr. Kerry.

Smears now take on eternal life by the mere fact that the controversy is reported. The lies about Mr. Kerry’s record did not die. They made Newsweek’s cover (Sept. 20), multiplied themselves on cable news and the Sunday morning talk shows, where Tim Russert from “Meet the Press” badgered Mr. Kerry like a prosecutor over his 1971 testimony on war crimes, when Mr. Russert knew well that the Mr. Kerry’s charges were true. Finally, the media have treated the Kerry and Bush Vietnam controversies as if they had equal weight, as if by pairing the two sides in a he-said/he-said debate the media had with “fairness” done their job -- when their real job is to get the truth and tell it.

Unfortunately the Swift boat issue will hang on through Election Day for three reasons:

  • Since 9/11, Bush has campaigned on the fear of a terrorist attack only he can save us from.
  • Kerry, in reply, decided to run on his warrior image. (That’s too bad. A recent C-Span broadcast of his Vietnam-era testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee shows him to be eloquent and morally courageous. Some vets have never forgiven him for telling the truth.)
  • The Bushes are determined to break Kerry’s war leadership image by any means.

Meanwhile, the mudslinger’s use of anonymous sources has put the journalist’s “privilege” to protect sources in a new light. Not just the courts but journalism professionals -- from the ethicists at the Poynter Institute to the editorial page writers of the Newark Star-Ledger -- are rethinking “going to jail” rather than reveal a source.

The smear season opened when Matt Drudge posted the rumor on his Web site that Mr. Kerry had had an affair with an intern. The tabloids picked it up, and the story enjoyed circulation until the intern not only denied it but came home from Africa, personally tracked down and confronted each of her accusers and exposed them in New York Magazine.

Meanwhile, to punish Ambassador Joseph Wilson for reporting his discovery that, contrary the President Bush’s State of the Union Address, Niger was not providing Saddam Hussein with processed uranium to make a nuclear weapon, Bush operatives leaked the secret to conservative pundit Robert Novak of “Capital Gang” that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent -- thus destroying her cover and possibly putting her in danger.

Finally in September, the press’ attempt to get the full story on whether President Bush fulfilled his Air National Guard obligation in 1972 made a wrong turn when on “60 Minutes II” Dan Rather, with mixed advice from his consultants, used inadequately vetted papers from an unidentified source to show that Mr. Bush avoided duty.

Challenged, Rather stuck to his story and stood by his source.

On National Public Radio, Daniel Schorr extolled the practice of keeping sources confidential, beginning with own refusal 30 years ago to reveal his sources to a congressional committee. He recounted recent clashes between journalists and the courts. A federal judge in August ordered five journalists to reveal who had given them information incriminating Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a Los Alamos scientist accused of sharing secrets with China. Dr. Lee is suing the government under the Privacy Act for allowing leaks of his confidential record. Another judge ordered five other reporters to appear before the grand jury investigating the Wilson-Plame leak. Three complied.

Mr. Schorr climaxed his commentary by tipping his hat to Mr. Rather, who, as of the day before, was determined to hang tough.

But how sacred is the journalist’s obligation to protect sources? It is not the seal of confession. It is not protected by the First Amendment or by a substantial body of case law. In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Branzburg v. Hayes, ruled 5-4 that newsmen have no privilege that other citizens do not enjoy. But a concurring opinion argued for some privilege on a case-by-case basis. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have shield laws that offer some protection. And all journalists agree that if sources can’t speak to the press without fear of retaliation the press’s freedom to expose abuses of power is compromised.

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, reflecting in the Columbia Journalism Review (July/August 2004) on a recent Philadelphia murder case in which he refused to share his interview notes with the prosecutor, now thinks that as a citizen he should have cooperated.

In the recent cases the judges have insisted that reporters testify when the evidence is critical to the case and cannot be obtained elsewhere. And many journalists themselves agree that when one witnesses a serious crime or when the source’s motives are dishonorable, the source does not deserve protection.

Rather’s source, former guardsman Bill Burkett, whom several media quickly named, deceived both Rather and USA Today with false stories on who gave him the evidence.

For what purpose? An MSNBC anchor speculated one night, without evidence, that the Bush administration had planted the phony papers with Rather to sting him into a gaff so they could discredit legitimate criticism of Bush’s past.

There’s a special sadness in Rather’s situation. CBS is the network that with Edward R. Murrow finally took on Sen. McCarthy. CBS with Walter Cronkite devoted a big chunk of the “Evening News” to explain Watergate. Again with Cronkite, CBS reported that we were not winning the Vietnam war; and this year, on “60 Minutes,” the network exposed the scandal of Abu Ghraib.

By doing its job in times of crisis, CBS made right-wing enemies. Though portrayed by his enemies as a leftist, Rather is, if anything, too much a cheerleader for his country’s wars. Ironically, the sloppy reporting on Bush’s duty with the guard added little to what we already knew from the Times’ Sept. 20 Page One investigation and other research.

Unfortunately, as a result of the furor, CBS -- lest it appear biased -- has been forced to postpone until after the election a “60 Minutes” report on how the administration used forged documents in the Niger uranium case in order to justify starting the war.

As historian of leadership James McGregor Burns told NPR, it’s well established that during the Vietnam War John Kerry served his country well and George Bush did not. It’s time now, said Burns, to discuss what the campaign should be about -- in Jefferson’s words, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

It won’t happen. The new documentary film “Going Upriver: the Long War of John Kerry” opened in New York Oct. 1. A new video game has recreated Kerry’s Swift boat battle for grade school children to play on their computers. And the Swift boat vets have a new commercial accusing Kerry of meeting with the Vietnam enemy in Paris.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is Jesuit community professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College. His e-mail address is:

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 2004

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