BROOKE GLADSTONE: Symbiosis between campaigns and the media is an old story. What's new, or at least new-ish, in this case, is the prolonged passivity of news outlets, their seeming reluctance to put the charges of the Swift boat vets, no matter how outrageous, in context. The impact of cable TV cannot be minimized, and there, the ratio of light to heat diminishes daily. [TAPE MONTAGE PLAYS] [TV MUSIC]
MAN: We begin this hour with a display of political showmanship, gamesmanship, brinksmanship, that's sure to keep the Swift boat flap afloat for a few more days.
WOMAN: A lot of theatre here - he said, she said and so forth, but it -- underlying that Miles, there's some very strong feelings on, on both sides. You got some angry Vietnam veterans who are angry at John...
MAN: Yeah. What, what his fellow Vietnam guys are saying, what they experienced with him, they contradict just about every story he has told about has experience here.
JON STEWART: I mean you've seen the records, haven't you? What's your opinion?
STEVEN COLBERT: I'm sorry, my-- opinion? [LAUGHTER] Oh, I don't have "o-pin-i-ons." [LAUGHTER] I'm a reporter, Jon. My job is to spend half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time repeating the other. Little thing called objectivity. Might want to look it up some day. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, that last clip was from Comedy Central's Daily Show. But even the nation's best newspapers held back for some time before informing the debate with actual facts, even when those facts were readily available. Writing in the online edition of The American Prospect, a liberal political journal, executive editor Michael Tomasky marveled at the delayed response of the press, (quote) "You'd think that a press corps that has now officially acknowledged that it was had by this administration on the pre-Iraq war propaganda would think twice about letting itself get used one more time."
MICHAEL TOMASKY: The New York Times did a very thorough story on Friday August 20th, looking into the origins of the group, its possible connections to the Bush campaign. But my point is this: that it was August 20th before the Times did that story, and the story broke on August 4th. So that's 16 days of lag time, and in those crucial 16 days, the allegations by John O'Neill and his comrades were reported, you know, 80,000 times in the American media, and what their motivations and connections might be was reported a fraction of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Swift boat story has been a staple of the cable news shows all month long. Why is it getting so much traction?
MICHAEL TOMASKY: It's getting traction because it's sensational, and I would argue that it's sensational because one side is plainly lying and one side is plainly telling the truth, and my complaint about the coverage of the story so far would be that the conventions of journalism do not permit it to make a distinction between lies and the truth. Objective journalism has to cover stories as this side said and that side said. I mean let's say for example, Brooke, that you and I were much more important people than we actually are, [LAUGHTER] the kind of people whose utterances the media covered. And let's say that in my next breath on this show, I said something scurrilous about you that I knew to be untrue, but that I said that it was based on some incident from 20 years ago, and I happen to know because I was there. Now, you would know that it's not true. I would know, deep down, that it's not true, but the press would have to cover it as Tomasky says Gladstone says. And if I had the money to run television commercials saying it, and if I had the connections, say, for example to Matt Drudge to feed him a new tidbit every three or four days to keep the story bouncing along, then the media would have to continue to cover it, as Tomasky says Gladstone says, and before you know it, half the country would believe this thing that I said about you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there's a flaw in your argument. Because you say that the conventions of quote/unquote "objective journalism" demand a he-said, she-said format, but it doesn't really. I mean you can report the unsupported statements of the person making the scurrilous charges and still offer a kind of analysis and assessment to refute them.
MICHAEL TOMASKY: I would say that there has been journalism on this Swift boat issue that has fallen into that category, but I also do think there is a big fear of being called liberal and being accused of bias by conservatives, and I think that there's also just a lack of imagination about how to go about balancing this story and stories like it and giving the fuller context. The piece that I took issue with was a piece on the front page of last Sunday's Washington Post which was a very long examination of the charges back and forth between Kerry and the Swift boat people, and I'm sure the editors of the Washington Post would say well, we were doing a very thorough search for the truth there. But if I'm an assignment editor at the Washington Post, aware that we've just run a 3,000 or so word story and bannered it on page one on Sunday, I think to myself, now what can we do to balance this - to fill out the context? I think it's entirely fair that the Washington Post under those circumstances might consider doing a 3,000 word story on the history of Dick Cheney's five deferments during the Vietnam era. Now, I doubt they'll do that, because there is no Vietnam Veterans for the Truth about Deferments out there pushing their story, and that too says something sad about journalism and initiative and enterprise and giving readers the fuller context.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, editorial boards and ombudsmen of newspapers around the country - the, the L.A. Times, the Sun in Baltimore, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis - they've all been doing some serious public hand-wringing over whether their paper should be covering this story at all, even as their news pages are, are filled with the stuff. Is this public display of agony an attempt to inoculate the papers from criticism?
MICHAEL TOMASKY: Yeah, I think it is. You know, there are these bouts of self-examination every time something like this happens, and people say we'll do it differently next time, and then next time comes, [LAUGHS] and they do it exactly the same way. I, I don't see much hope for progress.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that ultimately it was the cable news coverage that drove it into the pages of high quality publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post?
MICHAEL TOMASKY: Certainly cable drove this story, and let's be candid, here -- a lot of this is driven by Fox, and Fox obviously has an ideology, and Fox wants to support what these Swift boat people are saying and get it out there, and MSNBC and CNN both want to keep up with Fox, because Fox has higher ratings, so they want to try and to some extent do what Fox does--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, the Washington Post executive editor Len Downey said recently that newspapers drive their own agenda, that cable TV has nothing to do with it.
MICHAEL TOMASKY: I think I understand what Len Downey is trying to say -- that they try not to let the Washington Post be driven by cable news and gabfests and shouting matches. But I don't think it's realistic. I mean first of all the politicians themselves react to cable. Their staffs watch it, they come out the next day in response to what happened on cable last night. So that obviously affects what the New York Times and the Washington Post do in terms of how they cover them. So, cable has come to have incredibly vast influence among the political class, and you know, Len Downey, as much as he would like to be, can't be insulated from it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Tomasky, thank you very much.
MICHAEL TOMASKY: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Tomasky is the executive editor of The American Prospect magazine. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now an update. As of Tuesday, Time Magazine White House correspondent Matt Cooper no longer faces 18 months in prison. Cooper was charged with contempt of court for refusing to name the source who leaked him the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. But this week, Cooper gave a name to Justice Department prosecutors -- that of Lewis I. "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff. The prosecutors had asked specifically about Libby, who then waived his confidentiality agreement with the reporter. But Cooper had referred to sources in his piece, so there may be more than one. The story isn't over yet. [MUSIC FADES]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, why the margin of error is bigger than you think, and a poke in the eye of public radio. This is On the Media, from NPR.