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 anymore 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."
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 -- perhaps 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 a group of Swift boat veterans 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 today, 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 hardworking 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 that 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."
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.
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.