What’s a major media outlet to do?

The question of the day is when (if at all) the major media outlets will deal with the serious charges pertaining to John Kerry’s service in Vietnam and his apparently false statements regarding same. Today, Rocket Man predicted that these outlets soon will produce an “even-handed” account, noting generally that there is a controversy similar to the one surrounding President Bush’s time with the National Guard, and that this will be the end of the coverage. Others, such as Considerettes suggest that the media will wait for Kerry to figure out his line and then present the story as an allegation and a rebuttal, thus bringing the matter to a close.
Both scenarios are plausible, but to me neither implies that Kerry gets a pass on these issues. I say this less because of the power of the blogosphere than because of the power of word-of-mouth. This country is full of Vietnam veterans. Many of them don’t like John Kerry. For more than a year, we’ve been hearing from these folks. Friends were urging me to take Kerry to task over his service well before the swiftboat vets opened fire (call me a “chicken-hawk” because I didn’t have the nerve to do so, not having served at all during this period). Most vets we heard from lacked hard information that Kerry’s service (as opposed to his antics after returning) was problematic, but they believed that it was. They wondered, for example, how he got three purple hearts in four months, thus enabling him to leave Vietnam so soon. Now that these folks have evidence that seems to confirm their suspiciions, I expect them to spread the word to their friends and neighbors. With outlets like Fox also covering the story, the word that spreads will be credible.
Where does this leave the media? It can ignore, whitewash, or sugar coat the story (and I assume it will do some of these things), but it does so at its peril. If it ignores the story (or only talks about it once and superficially), it will stand outside a major political conversation, confirming its descent into irrelevance and losing the opportunity to spin. If it spins the story too hard, it will lose credibility and add fuel to the anti-Kerry fire, assuming (a) that Kerry has no good answer and (b) that there really is a substantial conversation going on outside of the major media.
How much this story will resonate remains to be seen. It seems almost certain to tarnish Kerry’s image to some degree, but candidates with tarnished images have been elected president before. In my view, this story isn’t a clear deal-breaker for Kerry, and wouldn’t be even if the major media covered it extensively and fairly. But it is a problem for him, and will be even though the media will do whatever it can to to lend him a hand.
Finally, this story has important (and to my mind unfortunate) implications if Kerry wins. It pretty much ensures that we will once again have a commander-in-chief who is hated and/or distrusted by large segments of the military. We had this situation, of course, in 1993 after Bill Clinton was elected. But it didn’t seem to matter that much then. Fighting the war against terrorism with a president possessing this little credibility with the military could be a serious problem unless Kerry overcompensates, something his core constituencies won’t tolerated. Let’s hope we don’t have to face this situation.


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