Is absolutely everything fair game for the press these days?

From the contours of John Kerry's war wounds to George Bush's failure to take a National Guard physical to a book's disputed allegations of drug use at Camp David, the media seem consumed these days with excavating the down-and-dirty past.

All too often the details are murky, the evidence secondhand, the documents doubted, the arguments driven by high-decibel partisanship.

"I don't think the media feel badly any more covering 30-year-old wars or personal scandals," says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist and press critic. "I don't think they feel particularly badly about publishing gossip and unproven allegations." Although there's an argument that what the candidates did during Vietnam "is revealing of Bush's character and Kerry's character, it's not nearly as important as what they've done in their public lives in the last 20 years."

Perhaps if journalists devoted the same investigative energy to the candidates' efforts to bolster Medicare and Social Security or deal with the mess in Iraq-as opposed to precisely what happened on the Bay Hap River in 1969-more people might find campaign coverage compelling.

When the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began charging that Kerry didn't deserve some of his Vietnam medals, cable television acted as a giant echo chamber. Even when several newspapers found holes and inconsistencies in the veterans' accounts, the debate continued to rage on the air and in news columns, virtually swallowing the month of August.

When the Boston Globe and Associated Press raised new questions about Bush's National Guard service last week-and then "60 Minutes" disclosed documents suggesting that he got preferential treatment as a Guard pilot-the media battalions charged off in the other direction. Democrats who decried the assault on Kerry's heroism were all too happy to tell reporters that the president lied about his service, while Republicans who cheered the Swifties accused the press of unfairly dredging up old news.

In this highly charged atmosphere, the authenticity of the Guard memos unearthed by CBS came under fire, with experts offering dueling analyses of the font sizes and superscript used in 1972.

"Here the campaign is dealing with terrorism and war, but we're still capable of losing ourself in matters 35 years old that belong on 'Jeopardy!' or 'Trivial Pursuit,' " says Frank Sesno, a George Mason University professor and former CNN anchor. While he blames Kerry in part for putting Vietnam at the center of his campaign, Sesno sees an "almost ridiculous contrast" between the country's problems and the media's obsession with old controversies.

Against this backdrop, Kitty Kelley's book on the Bush clan, slated for release early this week, unearths salacious material about the president, including allegations of past drug use, catapulting her to three consecutive "Today" interviews this week. But the television outlets rushing to land Kelley haven't seen the book, making it impossible for them to judge the quality of journalism involved.

"Too many reporters and editors are lazy and are using this book as justification for pushing these allegations out there," says Sabato, who is quoted briefly by Kelley. "The 'Today' show should absolutely be ashamed of itself," along with the other media outlets interviewing Kelley. The book "should be isolated in an infectious disease ward. Where's the proof?"

But it's easy to pile on Kelley for using unnamed sources despite the fact that major news outlets do so every day. Historian Robert Dallek calls her "a hard-working journalist" who "prides herself on the fact she's never been successfully sued. . . . She's very effective at this genre."

Clearly, the focus on tawdry conduct and ancient allegations is not about to fade. "This is now a fixture of American politics and American media," Sesno says. "We may hate it and it may be absurd and it may add nothing to the edification of the public, but it's as much a part of the landscape as the remote."

From the Left

As co-hosts of CNN's "Crossfire," Paul Begala and James Carville have made no secret of being partisan Democrats-not that they could, since both men were high-profile strategists for Bill Clinton.

But as informal advisers to John Kerry's campaign, do they now face a serious conflict? Some of their cable rivals think so.

"If me and Dick Morris signed on to the Bush campaign tomorrow, the press would go crazy," Fox's Bill O'Reilly told viewers, adding: "CNN, they are not being honest by keeping those two guys on."

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann wrote on the network's Web site: "You can't actively participate in a campaign while analyzing it on-Oh, sorry. I forgot-I live in the past."

The CNN duo dismiss the sniping, saying they advise the campaign free of charge.

"I don't have any formal role," Begala says. "I don't get on their strategy calls. I don't have a desk or a phone there. If I think Kerry is wrong on something, I say so. I think he was wrong on the $87 billion [opposing those funds for Iraq and Afghanistan]. I disagreed with his vote on the war. I thought the convention should have been more negative."

"I'm a Democrat with an opinion," Carville says. "I talk to everybody regularly. People in the Kerry campaign at times have been exceedingly angry with me for my outspokenness. I have hardly toed the Kerry campaign line."

But Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt calls it "highly irregular that a news network would feel comfortable paying the salaries of two advisers to the Kerry campaign."

CNN has long been unconcerned about the problems caused by the "Crossfire" tradition of allowing political activists to simultaneously serve as commentators. Carville's Republican wife, Mary Matalin, was an informal adviser to Bush's 2000 campaign while co-hosting the show. "Our audience fully understands that Carville and Begala are two of the best-known Democratic strategists in the country," says CNN spokesman Matthew Furman.

Engaging in some old-fashioned pushback, Begala notes that MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, has introduced Bush at a rally, and that CNBC host Dennis Miller has spoken on Bush's behalf. "On our show, the other side is always represented," Begala says, referring to conservative hosts Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

Bob Meyers, CNBC's senior vice president, says that "Dennis Miller is a comedian, not a journalist. He is always fully upfront and open about his political position, and we do not feel that his campaigning efforts are a conflict of interest." MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines says the network had no problem with Scarborough attending a Bush event because he "hosts an opinion show and is not a news anchor."

Countdown to Idiocy

Speaking of Keith Olbermann, the "Countdown" host trumpeted as his No. 1 story Tuesday an Indiana University study which found that people lose an average of 20 IQ points after becoming parents. D'oh! The figures were taken from a satirical Web site.

But you can't accuse Olbermann of minimizing his blunder. With the headline "Countdown Punk'd," the former sportscaster made his own humiliation the top story Wednesday. He said a university PR man had called to say that "people like him exist so we can verify off-the-wall stories like this. . . . I'm the managing editor. . . . Ultimately it is my fault, so I apologize."

Still Ticking

Rob Krier, general manager of Oklahoma City's KWTV-TV, found himself accused of trying to censor "60 Minutes" last week.

He says he had scheduled a charity telethon in the time slot months earlier, expecting "60 Minutes" to be a rerun, only to find the program was to air a controversial segment on President Bush's National Guard service. Then he got deluged with calls after local Democrats sent out an e-mail saying "we weren't running the show because we were pro-Bush," Krier says. He postponed the telethon.

Back to the campaign: Newsweek's cover story | deals with the dirt factor in the '04 race:

"It's slime time in the most vituperative presidential campaign since the divisive days of Richard Nixon -- which, not coincidentally, was the last time the country was so riven by war, culture and fear, and the last time our politics was so inundated by a flood of unregulated cash. In the old days -- pre-Watergate -- money traveled in big bills and brown bags, and wound up as 'walking-around money' on Election Day. Now it's in big checks and materializes as attack ads on cable and the Web.

"The slimy tide of money -- especially the new, unaccountable kind -- rides on a sea of political emotion churned up by the war. The president declares he is fighting 'Evil' with a capital E; and last week his veep said, before dialing back a tad, that if Kerry were elected, Americans would be more likely to get 'hit hard' by terrorists. Liberals who never reconciled themselves to the legitimacy of Bush's victory in 2000 nurture their hatred and open their wallets. Strategists for both sides preach to their own choirs in apocalyptic tones.

"Bush primarily sells himself, rather than his policies (after attacking Kerry in $60 million worth of ads); Kerry defends in kind, turning the Democratic convention into the Biography Channel. Though voters face profound questions, the war on terror has engendered not a high-minded discussion of geopolitics but an obsession -- even by American standards -- with our would-be commander's character. In Austin, where they play for keeps -- where LBJ once roamed and Karl Rove plotted George W. Bush's rise -- aficionados say they haven't seen such mean and personal campaigning in decades."

Andrew Sullivan | is out of the closet, so to speak, with a New Republic piece titled "Why I'm Not Voting for Bush":

"I cannot remember its exact provenance, but I recall a poster for a rock band that had a picture of an adorable, small puppy with a pistol pointed at its head. 'Buy Our Album Or We'll Kill This Dog,' ran the slogan. It was, of course, a punk joke. But it came to my mind when I heard Vice President Dick Cheney's remark earlier this week. Here's the full text: 'It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.' Punk translation: Vote for me or you'll die.

"Fair or unfair? I don't think the veep was engaging in punk-era irony. And in some respects, his point is an obvious, and legitimate, if blunt one. If he believes that his policies are the best in the war on terror, he presumably must believe that there will be bad consequences if John Kerry wins the election. Again, in a war against terrorism, one of those bad consequences must surely be the increased likelihood of a terrorist attack. So in some respects, Cheney was saying the obvious. The same goes for Kerry, whose criticism of the president's war record obviously implies that this administration has failed in the war, and that therefore the likelihood of more terror attacks has increased. Kerry, of course, tends to avoid the crudeness of Cheney's rhetoric. But the logic has to be similar.

"Nevertheless, the leap from making the case for your own war policies toward blaming the other guy for potential attacks is still a perilous one."

Kerry is stonewalling the press, Jill Zuckman reveals in the Chicago Tribune: | http://www.9chicagotribune.9com/9news/9nationworld/9chi-0409100267sep10,1,7884968.story

"Who knows what lurks in the heart and mind of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry? Not the traveling press corps, that's for sure. Kerry has been under wraps for the last month, declining to subject himself to what must surely be the painful process of answering national reporters' questions. Kerry used to regularly assure his audiences that, if elected president, he would hold a press conference every month to communicate with the nation's citizenry . . .

"But Kerry doesn't make that promise anymore . . .Kerry travels across the country on a 757 airplane packed with staff, Secret Service agents, reporters, photographers and cameramen. The candidate sits at the front of the plane while the media stay in the back. Usually, reporters can get a glimpse of his gray mane when he stands in the aisle chatting with staff. Occasionally, he throws around a football on the airport tarmac, sometimes inviting a reporter to join in. But ask him a question and Kerry shakes his head, puts up his hand and walks away with a small smile. . . . Perhaps he just doesn't want to answer questions about his Vietnam service, about why he recently shook up his campaign staff and about whether he's worried about losing."

Kerry did break his silence with Time's Karen Tumulty, but I'm having trouble finding any news in his remarks.

"TIME: Do you think President Bush shirked his duties during the Vietnam era?

"KERRY: I'm focused on the issues of now and today. The White House can answer questions they need to answer. I've answered all the questions I'll answer."

The Los Angeles Times | http://www.9latimes.9com/9news/9nationworld/9nation/la-na-kerry12sep12,1,4949985.story?coll=la-home-headlines looks at the feuding within Camp Kerry:

"Even as he fights to regain momentum in the presidential race, Sen. John F. Kerry faces a debate among advisors over the tone and content of his message, according to insiders and other Democrats familiar with the campaign's discussions.

"One continued disagreement is over how sharply the Democratic presidential nominee -- as opposed to campaign surrogates -- should attack President Bush. Also in dispute is how much change would be too much for Kerry to advocate in these anxious times.

In one compromise, Kerry has taken to using words 'new direction' rather than 'change.'"

Man, that's bold.

"Although Kerry strategists agree the Massachusetts senator needs to be more aggressive, they remain divided over how best to communicate his critique of Bush. That lack of consensus, some Democrats say, has exacerbated Kerry's inconsistency on the campaign trail, undermining his ability to drive home his central arguments that Bush has neglected middle-class Americans and made the country less safe through his policies in Iraq."

Finally, National Review's David Frum | dissects Democratic heartbreak:

"A few weeks ago, the Washington Post Style section profiled a new book with the couldn't-be-clearer title He's Just Not That Into You. The book offered its female target market a revolutionary new insight: If a man does not pursue a woman, it's because . . . he doesn't like her very much. . . .

"Male readers of the Style section must have wondered: Can half the human race really be so deluded about the fundamental facts of life? But that question is unfair. After all, a very great many of those male readers are national Democrats - and they share exactly the same blindness as those Californian women.

"If their candidate is trailing in the polls, as John Kerry is trailing now, they will try a million excuses before considering the possibility that the problem is . . . their candidate. He's got so much going for him! He's smart, he's handsome, he has medals: How could the voters not immediately fall in love?

"Of all the roster of excuses Democrats invoke to explain why the voters suddenly go cold ('Maybe they have lost our phone number? Maybe they have commitment issues?') the absolute favorite is the excuse we have begun to hear this summer and fall: Their wonderful fella has fallen victim to Lee Atwater-style Republican dirty tricks."

By that logic, maybe they should have gone with their first love, Howard Dean, rather than dumping him for the richer boyfriend.