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Media Missed the (Swift) Boat

CBS newsman Dan Rather says journalists were too slow to do a truth check on the "swift boat" ads attacking Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's war record.

On the eve of the Republican gathering in New York, Rather also likens the political conventions to cable infomercials for kitchen utensils and says that unless the parties reinject some news into the menu, the networks will continue to slice and dice their coverage.

Saying that, in some ways, the Vietnam war is "as distant as the Napoleonic campaigns," Rather tells B&C's Bill McConnell in an interview in the Aug. 30 issue that the emphasis on the "swift boat" story distracted the media from a more important story, which is "Do [the candidates] have an exit strategy for Iraq? And if so, what is it? How will they address the national deficit? And what are the chances their plans will work?"

That doesn't mean that the swift boat story wasn't fair game for journalists, however. "Bush’s forces raised questions. It’s quite legitimate to report what they were raising and report what Republicans said the answers were," says Rather. "Where some of the press failed the test—and I don’t exclude myself—is how quickly the reporting followed behind the Swift boat ads and asked whether their answers were truthful.

"[W]hen Kerry made the decision to make his war service a centerpiece, if not the centerpiece of the campaign, he opened himself up to attacks by his opponents," says Rather. "If Kerry loses, we may look on this period as a decisive hour. An important part of the story remains why Kerry and his campaign responded so slowly, so meekly and so weakly."