Columns » Max Brantley

The new rules


I'm trying hard not to be optimistic about Democratic chances to beat George Bush again. Expect the worst and you'll never be disappointed. But there are a few encouraging signs. For one, the press is showing a tiny bit more backbone than in 2000, when the color of Al Gore's clothing drew more attention than Bush's dubious business deals. The Republican slime machine is also desperate. Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry a tool of special interests? Those GOP jokesters should know a tool when they see one, that's for sure. Kerry plays the money game, but Republicans perfected it. Then there's web gossip Matt Drudge, back on the attack. He published an unfounded rumor recently about Kerry. Because Kerry submits to many public questions - unlike George Bush - a radio talker got an opportunity to ask him if the rumor was true. Kerry said it wasn't. On that slender thread - denial of an unsubstantiated rumor - the gossip was republished in, among others, tabloid newspapers in New York seen by millions of readers, national TV networks and, eventually, even the New York Times, Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Some found a way to gift wrap the garbage. For example: The Dallas Morning News (which issued a famously embarrassing retraction after it published Lewinsky-era fiction about Bill Clinton) repeated the Kerry gossip in the guise of a sober examination of the changing journalistic landscape. Experts harrumphed about the influence of the Internet. Scrub it up any way you want. The Dallas article was a Trojan horse to get sleaze inside the gates. Many readers surely believed the gossip had some substance, else the paper wouldn't have repeated it. The Democrat-Gazette resisted until the very end. Other people touched by the gossip also issued categorical denials. After that, just about every medium felt compelled to publish something. The D-G buried its few sentences at the bottom of a longer story. It was admirable restraint for a newspaper that tends to exhibit a preference for Republican candidates. (See last Saturday's prominent and uncritical treatment of a single late-arriving Alabama alibi witness for Bush's Guard service. The alibi said Bush was on base at a time when even Bush hasn't claimed to have been on duty.) I corresponded with the reporter responsible for the Dallas thumbsucker. She was very polite, given my criticism. She said there'd been some internal debate at the paper, but added, "Once Kerry denied the rumor and discussed the report with reporters, it was decided that we should get his denial on the record." What if he'd refused to respond? Would they have forged ahead on the ground that Kerry had dodged the question? What if an unhousebroken reporter got a chance to ask George Bush about Internet rumors circulating about him? Would the pro-Bush Dallas paper create an excuse to "get his denial on the record?" The general rule used to be that you ran allegations when they were supported by evidence. Internet bloggers didn't change the rules of journalism. Cowardly editors did.

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