Presidential Race Is Clear as Mud: Campaign Battles Compromise Journalistic Ethics

Article excerpt

Not since Wisconsin Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, as in the classic Herblock editorial cartoon, crawled out of the sewer wielding his "anticommunist" bucket of slime in the 1950s have we seen a dirtier presidential campaign.

On the Sunday before the Republican National Convention, after the protest march from 33rd Street to Union Square, I encountered, propped against the park fence, a grizzled gentleman wielding a poster calling Senator John Kerry a traitor. I stopped to talk. He was a real Vietnam vet, he said. He had gone there twice and won real medals, while that fraud Mr. Kerry had "shot himself in the ass with salt."

I asked quietly if he had read the detailed examination and refutation of the "Swift boat" accusations in The New York Times.

"No," he replied. "I never read communist newspapers."

His reply typified the level of political discussion over the past months.

Since the 1950s, however, mudslinging has become more complex.

Mr. McCarthy's method was to call a hasty news conference at the end of the day, accuse State Department officials of being "reds" or "fellow travelers" and know that the papers would print the charges the next morning, without time to investigate whether they were true.

Today half the books on the best-seller lists are campaign attacks. Today's smear starts in a whisper or on a Web site, spreads to talk radio, pops up on cable news and is repeated subtly by high-level surrogates--as when Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush were trotted out to reiterate the slurs against Mr. Kerry.

Smears now take on eternal life by the mere fact that the controversy is reported. The lies about Mr. Kerry's record did not die. They made Newsweek's cover (Sept. 20), multiplied themselves on cable news and the Sunday morning talk shows, where Tim Russert from "Meet the Press" badgered Mr. Kerry like a prosecutor over his 1971 testimony on war crimes, when Mr. Russert knew well that the Mr. Kerry's charges were true. Finally, the media have treated the Kerry and Bush Vietnam controversies as if they had equal weight, as if by pairing the two sides in a he-said/he-said debate the media had with "fairness" done their job--when their real job is to get the truth and tell it.

Unfortunately the Swift boat issue will hang on through Election Day for three reasons:

* Since 9/11, Bush has campaigned on the fear of a terrorist attack only he can save us from.

* Kerry, in reply, decided to run on his warrior image. (That's too bad. A recent C-Span broadcast of his Vietnam-era testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee shows him to be eloquent and morally courageous. Some vets have never forgiven him for telling the truth.)

* The Bushes are determined to break Kerry's war leadership image by any means.

Meanwhile, the mudslinger's use of anonymous sources has put the journalist's "privilege" to protect sources in a new light. Not just the courts but journalism professionals--from the ethicists at the Poynter Institute to the editorial page writers of the Newark Star-Ledger--are rethinking "going to jail" rather than reveal a source.

The smear season opened when Matt Drudge posted the rumor on his Web site that Mr. Kerry had had an affair with an intern. The tabloids picked it up, and the story enjoyed circulation until the intern not only denied it but came home from Africa, personally tracked down and confronted each of her accusers and exposed them in New York Magazine.

Meanwhile, to punish Ambassador Joseph Wilson for reporting his discovery that, contrary the President Bush's State of the Union Address, Niger was not providing Saddam Hussein with processed uranium to make a nuclear weapon, Bush operatives leaked the secret to conservative pundit Robert Novak of "Capital Gang" that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent--thus destroying her cover and possibly putting her in danger. …