Objectivity and Swift Boat Reporting

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(Host) For commentator Barrie Dunsmore the news media’s handling of the controversy over John Kerry’s war record raises questions as to what constitutes “objective” reporting.

(Dunsmore) One of the more troubling aspects of much of today’s news reporting is a technique that might properly be called “pseudo-objectivity.” In this formula, two people with opposing views on a controversial subject are given a platform to argue their prejudices. And with very little history or context, the public is then left to figure out for itself the illusive truth. The Fox Network touts this as a virtue with its slogan “We report — you decide.” The problem with that philosophy is that the opposing sides of every issue are not always morally equivalent.

Back in the early sixties, as the civil rights movement was beginning to take hold, the noted broadcaster Howard K. Smith witnessed the infamous Birmingham, Alabama riot, when a gang of Ku Klux Klansmen viciously attacked a bus-load of Freedom Riders at the Greyhound Bus Terminal. Smith, who was a southerner, was outraged by what he saw, and that outrage was evident in his reporting in a CBS News documentary on the incident. For that, he was fired by William Paley, the founder of CBS.

In his memoirs Smith wrote that, in justifying his reporting to Paley, he had argued that had he given equal weight to the racist Birmingham police chief Bull Connor and to the US Supreme Court which had ruled against segregation, it would have been “…the equivalent of saying that truth is to be found somewhere between right and wrong, equidistant between good and evil.”

That might describe much of the reporting of the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and their allegations that John Kerry’s war record is fabricated. Their claims have been given equal weight to Kerry’s — namely: he says he is a war hero, but here’s a bunch of his fellow sailors who say he’s lying.

It is true that some news organizations have gone beyond that to raise serious questions about the credibility of the allegations and those making them and to note the connections of Kerry’s detractors to the Bush Campaign. But talk radio and 24/7 cable news have been far less scrupulous in presenting those facts, with the result that Kerry has been hurt politically — which, of course, is the point of the exercise. Once again we see the effectiveness of the politics of personal destruction at which Bush operatives have become so adept, whether the targets are Michael Dukakis, Max Cleland, or even their own John McCain.

For me, if Kerry’s war record is the subject of a clearly political attack, then the war records of Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Tom DeLay — and yes George W. Bush — need to be re-examined and mentioned every time the story is reported. And, as we know, unlike John Kerry, none of the above was willing to risk his life on behalf of this country. That would be moral equivalence and genuine objectivity in reporting. Otherwise, reporters are simply doing the hatchet work for one side in this election campaign.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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