Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 18, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

KERRY IN CAMBODIA....Virginia Postrel writes, and Instapundit approvingly links to, a post telling political reporters they aren't properly informing the public about the "John Kerry in Cambodia" story:

Come on, folks. If you can't find out any independent sources on Kerry's own story, at least report the "he says-he says" allegations. And help out your audience with some context: Dig up some more-or-less unbiased (or at least nonpartisan) sources to provide some historical context for the bizarre Cambodia story. Never mind John Kerry specifically, what were U.S. operations during that period? Are any of his various accounts plausible and, if so, which ones? Or give readers some background on the procedures for awarding medals during Vietnam. There was a lot of medal inflation and, presumably, some politics in how medals were awarded. What, if anything, does the broader context tell us about Kerry and his critics?

I have to admit that this sounds like a more subtle critique than the usual media bashing from the right ("They don't want us to know the truth!"), but it amounts to the same thing: Virginia is insisting that the media should figure out some way to report a smear story even though they know it's a smear story and there's no actual evidence to back it up.

Let's review:

  • Kerry has said several times that his Swift Boat crossed into Cambodia on Christmas Eve of 1968. The most recent time he told this story was over a decade ago.

  • The story is wrong. Kerry crossed into Cambodia at least once, but it was in January, not December.

  • I agree that Kerry deserves a slap on the wrist over this. He seems to have embellished this particular war story because Christmas sounded better than Tet (or something). But that's about it.

In other words, there's just not much there, and I gather that the Kerry campaign has already admitted that the Christmas embellishment was untrue.

The second part of the story, questioning whether Kerry earned his medals, is even more repellent. A bunch of guys who hate Kerry's guts because of his anti-war activities 30 years ago have now gotten together and announced that Kerry never deserved the medals the Navy awarded him. But not only are their stories contradictory, they're also completely unverifiable and they know it. They can say anything they want and it's impossible to prove that they're lying.

So since there's no actual news hook on which to justify coverage of this smear campaign, we're supposed to believe that the mainstream media should desperately look for some reason, any reason, to make sure everyone knows about this. Just report the he-says-she-says story! Write a story about medal inflation! Write a thumbsucker about whether we ever sent people into Cambodia! Write anything, as long as it provides an excuse to put the smear story against Kerry on the front page.

The story about George Bush's National Guard record managed to get a couple of weeks of attention from the mainstream media, but only because there was documentary evidence to back it up. It was initially kicked off by a mysteriously torn retirement record and then finished off by payroll records released by the White House. Without those, the story would have gone nowhere.

Conversely, the Swift Boat smear has no documentary evidence at all. It's just a bunch of guys making things up and knowing they can't be called on it. Why should the mainstream press get suckered into giving them a platform?

UPDATE: William Saletan and Jacob Weisberg debate the Swift Vets smear ad here. It's quite a contest: Saletan argues that all 15 of the charges in the ad are specious while Weisberg maintains that the ad is "beyond vile." Saletan's careful fact checking is appreciated, but Weisberg wins on points for including the phrase "extra-chromosome conservatives at Regnery" in his piece.

UPDATE 2: Finally, some documentary evidence! Unfortunately for the Swifties, it's evidence that one of them is lying.

Kevin Drum 8:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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