While we were getting down to the wire on the John Kerry Silver Star medal story at ABC News’s “Night-line,” the recent painful “60 Minutes’” debacle over the President’s war record story gave fresh meaning to an old rule, “Thou shalt make no mistake.”
A freelance producer had brought us an official map from the Vietnamese government, which when paired with coordinates in the official U.S. “After-Action Report,” provided a line across 35 years to the hamlet where then First Lieutenant Kerry received a citation saying he had charged into a numerically superior force under intense fire. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had claimed there’d been no firefight there and that the Vietcong killed by Kerry was a boy.
A football field could be carpeted with words written and broadcast debating the merit of this medal. Political ads from the swift boat veterans group had unleashed a maelstrom of punditry. Everyone had an opinion; no one seemed to have any real information. For each soldier who claimed that Kerry was a hero, another charged he’d dishonored the Navy.
High-volume punditry was flowering—as it always does—in the absence of clear facts. When “Nightline” was offered the opportunity to do primary reporting to advance this story, we leapt at the chance. Once there, we found eyewitnesses to the event who had vivid memories of that day in February 1969 when swift boats beached on their shore, though none had heard of John Kerry by name.
The two biggest stories of our time—Iraq and the presidential election—have their own challenges in reporting, and the lack of agreed-upon facts offers fertile ground for punditry to fill this vacuum. In Iraq the reality of lethal danger means that reporters languish in the Green Zone, unable to report the conflict firsthand or speak with people whom it affects. On the campaign trail reporters had little direct access to the candidates who preferred to be interviewed by TV celebrities such as Dr. Phil and Regis and Kelly. In this void, campaign advisors became frighteningly adept at managing news. Reporters might be in the field, but they essentially were embedded with the campaigns. At a political convention, reporters observed a staged event as protesters were to be penned a few blocks away. Debates were covered from holding rooms where reporters watched on closed-circuit TV and did not see—as many viewers at home did—the colorful reaction shots of the candidates that networks aired, though doing so violated the rules of coverage set by the campaigns.
Technology makes possible the “publishing” of opinion from kitchen tables without ever leaving the house. It also means that skilled TV journalists can write words to pictures shipped in from the field. Little in today’s journalism milieu seems to require being there. It is easy to back away from the tough job of reporting, especially when bosses seem as content with punditry as with original reporting.
Consider the protesters. “Nightline” met a couple in Charleston, West Virginia who were arrested at a July 4th event with President Bush for wearing Kerry T-shirts. Campaign reporters heard such news, but being part of the ever-moving motorcade makes it hard to stay behind and follow-up. One highly respected political reporter wrote a powerful commentary piece about this couple. When we contacted the reporter, we learned she hadn’t covered the campaign in the field and had not spoken with the arrested couple.
Our silver medal story aired, relaying eyewitness accounts of Vietnamese peasants who said that the man Kerry killed was a veteran Vietcong operative sent into battle by those at headquarters. They remembered a heated firefight. The taped pieces were followed by an interview with the head of the swift boat veterans, who repeatedly held up copies of his book and The Boston Globe as proof of his assertions. After the report aired, “Nightline’s” anchor, Ted Koppel, offered his commentary. Punditry followed, and complemented, the story’s primary reporting.
Koppel let viewers know that “Nightline” didn’t know what would be found when our reporting team was dispatched to Vietnam. There they would ask questions of those who witnessed this event, and answers they received would provide a first-hand account that would speak to the debate about Kerry’s character. As Koppel noted, “Nightline” would have reported whatever was learned. “Because not reporting something you know can be just as much of a political statement as reporting it,” he said. “Finally, once we’ve checked things as thoroughly as we can, we’re in the business of reporting what we learn, not concealing it.”
Now if you’ll excuse me from this reflection on the role of punditry, I have to run. There is reporting to do.
Mary Claude Foster, a 2002 Nieman Fellow, is a producer at “Nightline.”