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You Can Report, but We Will Decide

The conservative media's handling of the Swift boat dispute is a case study in bias.

August 24, 2004|Ben Wasserstein | Ben Wasserstein is a writer in New York.

Last Thursday, the Washington Post reported that the military records of Larry Thurlow, one of John Kerry's major accusers among the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, contradicted Thurlow's version of events and confirmed Kerry's. At the very least, this cast severe doubt on the charge that Kerry fabricated the events that earned him one of his Vietnam War medals.

The conservative media had been pushing the fabrication story energetically. How did it deal with this new evidence undermining it? As it turns out, at almost every turn it soft-pedaled the new evidence or outright ignored it, showing its bias throughout.

On March 13, 1969, Kerry commanded one of five Navy Swift boats in a raid up the Bay Hap River and won a Bronze Star for actions under enemy fire. Thurlow commanded one of the other boats, and he has claimed in constant media rounds that there was no enemy fire. But, as the Post reported, Thurlow also won a Bronze Star that day, and the citation that accompanied it referred to "enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire" directed at "all units."

Thurlow's current story casts doubt on his own Bronze Star as much as Kerry's. Thurlow's explanation is that his citation's record of the events must have been based on Kerry's and that the information must have been provided by Kerry himself. There is an "after-action report" that Thurlow and John E. O'Neill, coauthor of the anti-Kerry book "Unfit for Command," refer to as "Kerry's report" despite the fact that it bears the initials KJW. (Later news stories have pointed out that Thurlow's Bronze Star citation refers to a witness to the enemy fire -- Thurlow's crewmate, Robert Lambert -- and that the KJW initials are also on reports about events Kerry was not involved in.)

No one has so far challenged the Washington Post's facts. Not that you'd know that if you were watching or listening to or reading conservative media outlets. Rupert Murdoch's New York Post ran Thurlow's charge that Kerry lied to get his medal. On Friday, the day after the Washington Post story poked a hole in that contention, the New York Post ran a teeny story focusing only on Kerry's decision to counterattack against a "tough anti-Kerry TV ad." The Wall Street Journal editorial page and its website, OpinionJournal, also said nothing about the new evidence.

The conservative Washington Times did report the Post's Thurlow scoop in a news article. It also ran Part 3 of its series excerpting the book "Unfit for Command," and the excerpt on Friday included Thurlow's contention that there was no hostile fire on March 13, 1969. In his column on Kerry, Washington Times Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden wrote, "The monsieur's friends at The Washington Post attempted to muddy the waters for him yesterday," and then Pruden approvingly restated Thurlow's assertions and his explanation for the discrepancy. An unsigned editorial called on the media to investigate the after-action report.

The leading serious conservative journal, the Weekly Standard, posted a new issue online Friday with a cover story titled "The Kerry Wars." The story cited the Washington Post article and admitted that "the documentary evidence available so far backs Kerry's story," but its paragraph dealing with the accusations that Kerry lied to get his medals concludes that "such claims boil down to Kerry's word versus his opponents'." That ignores the witnesses who back Kerry's story. It also ignores the pesky documentary evidence that supports Kerry's version of events.

On TV and radio, all the action came Thursday. On the Fox News Channel, the afternoon news show, "Studio B With Shepard Smith," offered a three-minute report on the "ongoing spat" over Kerry's military record without mentioning the new evidence about Thurlow's contradictions. The imbroglio over Kerry's Vietnam record led "The Big Story With John Gibson" and, again, not once in the five-minute segment was the Thurlow discrepancy discussed.

Next came Fox's "Special Report With Brit Hume," which opened with the teaser: "And despite Navy records, the dispute goes on about whether Kerry earned one of his medals under fire or not." Addressing the claims in the Washington Post article, there was a pre-taped interview with O'Neill, who asserted that Thurlow's "Bronze Star citation is based on the report that John Kerry wrote." The fact that there is no evidence that Kerry wrote that report was not mentioned. Military analyst Bill Cowan appeared to answer questions like, "If you yourself wrote an after-action report ... would that be taken into consideration?" This discussion of Kerry's alleged report left no time for comment on the controversy over whether Thurlow deserved his Bronze Star and why he waited so long to examine the citation's language.

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