Tuesday, August 24, 2004

On Cable, a Fog of Words About Kerry's War Record

August 24, 2004

On Cable, a Fog of Words About Kerry's War Record

There is the fog of war and then there is the fog of cable.

Over the last few weeks, 24-hour news networks have done little to find out what John Kerry did in Vietnam, but they have provided a different kind of public service: their examination of his war record in Vietnam illustrates once again just how perfunctory and confusing cable news coverage can be. Facts, half-truths and passionately tendentious opinions get tumbled together on screen like laundry in an industrial dryer - without the softeners of fact-checking or reflection.

Somehow, on all-cable news stations - CNN as well as Fox News - a story that rises or falls on basic and mostly verifiable facts blurs into just another developing news sensation alongside the latest Utah kidnapping or the Scott Peterson murder trial. (It is particularly confusing on Fox News, where so many of its blond female anchors look like Amber Frey.)

Fox News, which delivers its news with "Fight Club" ferocity, has relished the controversy the most, seizing hungrily on charges that Mr. Kerry lied to gain his medals. Those accusations, which have not been substantiated, were made in the book "Unfit for Command," co-written by a former Swift boat commander and longtime Kerry critic, John O'Neill. Fox News has pushed the story early, often, and sometimes even late.

Yesterday, President Bush denounced all third-party campaign ads, including the ads by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and called his opponent's war record admirable. Fox anchors made note of that development, then raced back to the disparaging remarks former Senator Bob Dole made to CNN on Sunday about Mr. Kerry's Purple Heart medals. ("Never bled that I know of," said Mr. Dole, who was badly wounded in World War II.)

Fox News showed, again, a clip of Mr. Dole complaining that it was hypocritical of Kerry, a former opponent of the war, to run now as a proud Vietnam veteran. The Fox anchor Laurie Dhue then turned to her liberal guest, Elaine Kamarck, a former Gore campaign adviser.

"I mean, this does make it sound like he speaks from both sides of his mouth on this," Ms. Dhue said. "Could this hurt the Kerry campaign?"

Ms. Kamarck disagreed.

Fred Barnes, the executive editor of The Weekly Standard and a regular Fox commentator, ardently defended the Swift boat critics of Mr. Kerry, saying on Fox that a majority of the senator's Vietnam brethren believed that Mr. Kerry "fabricated or exaggerated his record." Mr. Barnes added that "the entire chain of command above Kerry have said the same thing." He did not mention any notable exceptions in that chain of command, including Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, a former secretary of the Navy who said Mr. Kerry fully merited the Silver Star. Mr. Barnes's hyperbole went unchecked.

CNN showed less relish over the Swift boat clash, but it was not much more helpful in separating fact from friction. Wolf Blitzer's interview with the tart-tongued Mr. Dole made a lot of news on Sunday, but CNN allowed him to make misleading assertions without pointing out where he was in error. Mr. Dole suggested that Mr. Kerry was in a rush to obtain his Purple Hearts to meet a regulation that allowed soldiers to leave the war zone after winning three. "I mean, the first one, whether he ought to have a Purple Heart - he got two in one day, I think. And he was out of there in less than four months, because three Purple Hearts and you're out." ( Mr. Kerry did not receive two Purple Hearts for events of the same day. He received them for the events of Dec. 2, 1968; Feb. 20, 1969; and March 13, 1969.)

Finally, yesterday afternoon, Mr. Blitzer spoke to Mr. Dole by telephone and asked him if he regretted any of his statements. Mr. Dole said he did not.

"I wasn't trying to be mean-spirited," Mr. Dole said. "I was just trying to say all these guys on the other side just can't be Republican liars."

That kind of air-kiss coverage is typical of cable news, where the premium is on speed and spirited banter rather than painstaking accuracy. But it has grown into a lazy habit: anchors do not referee - they act as if their reportage is fair and accurate as long as they have two opposing spokesmen on any issue.

Fox commentators like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity are famous for their informal, intemperate manner of speech. But the debate on programs like "Crossfire," on CNN, is often as heated - and as full of hot air. On an Aug. 12 edition about the Swift boat debate, a program regular, Robert Novak, the conservative columnist, called Mr. O'Neill and his fellow anti-Kerry veterans "the real patriots to rise to the surface this election year."

James Carville, Mr. Novak's liberal counterpart, challenged Mr. O'Neill's co-author, Jerome Corsi, charging that Mr. Corsi's blog is "scabrous." When Mr. O'Neill tried to change the subject, Mr. Carville shrieked at him.

At best, cable news programs swing into action when a crisis or major news development occurs, marshaling their resources to give viewers instant, live access. At their worst, they amplify the loudest voices and blur complexities. People can blame the confusion of combat for some of the discrepancies over Mr. Kerry's war record, but cable has done little to clear the air.