What does a top newspaper editor owe his publisher? The press critic A. J. Liebling famously wrote: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Tired of arguing with a friend about the implication of that dictum, I threw up my hands a year ago and walked away. Since then, interest in the question has been rekindled. I decided to re-engage
The particular case that interests me has to do with the role of The New York Times in the 2004 presidential election. It was then that the first collision occurred between mainstream news media and crowdsourcing on the internet: The derisive Swift Boat Veterans for Truth vs. the John Kerry campaign. Did the presidency hang in the balance? There is no way of knowing. George W. Bush received 50.7 percent of the popular vote, against 48.3 percent for Kerry; in the Electoral College, the margin was slightly wider, 286 to 251.
In at least in one respect, crowdsourcing seemed to have won its contest that year. More news about dissension within the Swift Boat ranks appeared first on the Web during the second half of the year, rather than in newspapers. As Jill Abramson notes in Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts (Simon & Schuster, 2019), the newspaper business changed after that.
I followed what happened in 2004 because eight years earlier, I had become involved in what turned out to have been its quarter-final match. In 1996, Kerry, the junior US senator from Massachusetts, was running for re-election to a third term against a popular two-term governor, William Weld. Kerry decisively defeated Weld, sought the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 2000, then secured the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2004 to run against Bush.
Until 1996, Kerry was known to the national public mainly as a critic of the Vietnam War. The ‘80s, which began with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and Ronald Reagan’s election to his first term, had changed attitudes toward America’s experience in Vietnam. Though first elected in 1984 – on a promise to stop US atrocities in Nicaragua, – Kerry’s 1996 senatorial campaign was the first one in which he sought to tell the story of his war in Vietnam. He gave highly personal accounts of his service to Charles Sennott, of The Boston Globe, and to James Carroll, of The New Yorker, which appeared a month before the election. In reading them, I was struck by certain inconsistencies in the senator’s accounts – in particular, by the relatively short time he had spent in Vietnam.
I was then a columnist on the business pages of the Globe, writing mostly about economics and its connection to politics, but for a year (1968-69), as a second-class petty officer in the US Navy, I had been a Pacific Stars and Stripes correspondent, based in Saigon, and, for a year after that, a stringer for Newsweek magazine.
After Kerry boasted of his service and disparaged Weld for not having gone to that fight, I wrote a column on Monday for Tuesday, Oct. 22, that was headlined “The war hero.” In the course of my reporting, a member of Kerry’s Swift Boat crew, who had been put in touch with me by the campaign, confided in the course of a long conversation a detail that hadn’t appeared before. A second veteran, a former Swift Boat officer-in-charge, phoned the paper to offer additional details. I requested permission to draft a follow-up column, and received it.
A year ago, I told my story about how that second column came to be written. Below, I put into the record a parallax account of the key events of that week, in the form of a November 1996 letter from former Boston Globe editor Matthew Storin to a strident critic of the Globe’s coverage of Kerry in this instance. I include the letter to which he was responding as well below. They are long and painful to read, and unless you, too, are interested in 2004, you can skip them.
I am writing all of this now for two reasons. I learned last year that having retired from the newspaper business, Marty Baron is writing a book. Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post (Flatiron) is said to be about his eight years as executive editor of the Post, beginning just after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos purchased the paper from the Graham family. That makes Baron an expert on the central topic here; all the more so since in 2011, he was considered one of the three likeliest candidates to replace executive editor Bill Keller in the top news job at the Times, according to Jill Abramson, who ultimately got the job. I am eager to see what Baron says about the Globe’s 2004 book about Kerry, so I decided to put on the table the first of the cards that I possessed.
I also want to express the conviction that the resounding success of the tactics Kerry employed in 1996 probably cost him the presidency in 2004. During the week in the fall of ‘96 that we waited for the campaign’s reply to questions raised by “The war hero” column, we accumulated several new bits and pieces of information. Had his staff kept its promises, we would have asked questions about them, but I doubt that I would have written a second column, and certainly not the second column that appeared. Probably we would have waited until after the election, perhaps long after the election, to begin to resolve the questions. Meanwhile, Kerry might have learned how to talk about the issues that would be so starkly raised in 2004.
Instead, a hastily arranged Sunday rally, as Storin’s letter makes clear, was the equivalent of an ambush. Kerry and others, including Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Commander of Naval Forces in Vietnam when Kerry had been there, assembled from around the country and appeared in the Boston Navy Yard to fiercely denounce the second column, barely twelve hours after it appeared in print. The effects were blistering. With the election ten days away, the Globe covered the rally and otherwise put the story aside.
I received a copy of Storin’s letter to the critic soon after the election, via interoffice mail. In the five years I remained at the Globe, I was never asked by senior editors about what I had learned. The news business was different in those days. Newspapers were still regnant, but their owners embraced differing principles and possessed different points of view. The Globe had been purchased by New York Times Co. in 1993. Under a standstill agreement, the paper was still managed by the Taylor family in 1996, as it had been for 125 years. Even then, the implications of the sale were beginning to come clear. NYT Co. president Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. fired Benjamin Taylor as. Globe publisher in 1999, and replaced Storin with Baron in mid-2001.
Kerry considered questions about his experiences in Vietnam, asked in the rough and tumble of the news cycle, to be illegitimate; I and my editors considered them appropriate in the circumstances. None of us, I think, would have felt any compulsion to publish that second column had the campaign kept its promises. We’ll never know. But in refusing to respond, and attacking instead, Kerry had effectively ruled the questions out of bounds.
Kerry’s success in 1996 may have bred over-confidence going forward. The next eight years produced little news on these matters. The historian Douglas Brinkley wrote his campaign biography, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War (William Morrow, 2004). By the time it appeared, a whole new wing of the news industry had gained an audience – Rush Limbaugh, the Drudge Report, the Fox News Network, Bill O’Reilly, and Andrew Breitbart.
When the same ambush tactics the Kerry campaign employed against the Globe were used against him in May 2004 by the organization calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, it was too late to disarm. Kerry toughed it out. Bluster and evasion had become a habit.
November 6, 1996
John M. Hurley, Jr., 78 Longfellow Road, Wellesley. MA 02181
William 0. Taylor, Chairman; Benjamin B. Taylor, President; Matthew V. Storin, Editor: The Boston Globe
What has happened to The Boston Globe? What has happened to the proud, 124-year tradition of impeccable journalistic standards?
David Warsh has disgraced himself. He has shamed The Boston Globe, he has stained the profession you cherish.
I am a Vietnam veteran, a 26-year friend of John Kerry, and a 4-decade long fan of the Boston print media. (My father was a Boston news photographer for 43 years – 29 with The Boston Post, 2 freelancing, 12 with the Globe – and he instilled in his children an unyielding admiration for the Boston print media.)
But in 40-plus years of close observation of Boston newspapers, I have never seen a more despicable, more vicious, more baseless attack than David Warsh’s columns on John Kerry.
Without any foundation whatsoever, without a single witness contradicting events that took place 27 years ago, without a shred of physical or documentary evidence, Warsh levels the single, most vile hatchet job that I have ever seen.
Where is Warsh’s evidence to contradict these witnesses, where is the substantiation for his vicious speculation? There is none. Not one word. He speculates about the most heinous war clime imaginable – the commission of murder in order to secure a medal – and offers nothing in support of his speculation. Not a single witness. Not a statement. Not a document. Nothing. It is simply Warsh’s own personal, vicious speculation.
Even a “decorations sergeant,” if he has an ounce of objectivity, if he has an ounce of integrity, is capable of putting this incident into the context of a firefight: incoming B-40s. enemy fire, from both shorelines, third engagement of the day. stifling heat. deafening noise. screaming, shouting, adrenaline-driven chaos. Sheer mind-numbing chaos. Kerry and his crew were trained to do one thing in order to save their lives: react’, react, REACT. Lay down a base of fire, or die. It was that simple. Even a “decorations sergeant” understands that. But if you have no objectivity, if you have no integrity, you don’t put the incident into context. you write of war crimes instead.
And what of that dead VC? According to Warsh, he was Just a tourist on holiday. “The one thing that seemed hard to abide was a grandstander. A Silver Star for finishing off an unlucky young man?” SAY … THAT .., AGAIN. “A Silver Star for finishing off an unlucky young man?”
A VC soldier … in the midst of a firefight … armed with a B-40 rocket … aimed at the crew of a U.S. Navy swift boat – and Warsh sides with the dead VC. An unlucky young man, finished off for the sake of a Silver Star by a grandstander.
Who does David Warsh think he is? What right does he have to casually, callously, with utter disregard for the facts presented to him destroy a person’s reputation. Their character. their integrity, their honor?
And you let him do it. Twice.
Where are your journalistic standards. Where is your outrage. Where is your moral indignation. Where is your decency. Where ls your fairness? Do you really believe that Warsh’s vicious conjecture rises to the level of fair, objective comment? Are Warsh’s columns the stuff of which you want your newspaper judged?
John Kerry’s honor, his crew’s honor, is intact. What of the Globe’s?
It is important to point out that Warsh’s reporting is replete with errors. Warsh engages in the vilest character assassination imaginable, and he doesn’t even get basic facts right. In any newsroom I have ever visited “getting the story right” is worn like a badge of honor. Warsh didn’t even try.
Relying solely on personal conjecture (“What’s the ugliest possibility? ….”) and vicious innuendo (“Tom Bellodeau (sic) says he was awarded a Bronze Star … but I have been unable to find a copy of the citation.”). Warsh proceeds to trash the honor of Kerry, his crew, and indeed every veteran who has ever been awarded a medal for bravery.
There is not one word of substantiation in Warsh’s diatribe. There is no foundation, no witness, no evidence, no document that contradicts what has been said or written about Kerry’s war record. Yet Warsh dangles before the reader the most heinous speculation imaginable: that Kerry murdered a wounded, helpless enemy soldier in order to win a Silver Star for himself. An unspeakable crime, yet Warsh offers nothing to substantiate it. The allegation is solely Warsh’s own vicious, character-assassinating conjecture.
And you let him publish it. Twice.
Warsh advances his vicious speculation even though there are rock-solid statements and documents to the contrary, statements and documents that completely contradict his spurious, hate-filled conjecture:
Belodeau told Warsh: “When I hit him, he went down and got up again. When Kerry hit him, he stayed down.”
Medeiros told the Globe’s Barnicle: “I saw a man pop-up in front of us. He had a B-40 rocket launcher, ready to go. He got up and ran for the tree line. I saw Mr. Kerry grab an M-16 and chase the man. Mr. Kerry caught the man in a clearing in front of the tree line and he dispatched the man just as he turned to fire the rocket back at the boat…I haven’t seen or talked with Mr. Kerry since 1969, but I admired him them and I admire him now. He saved our lives.”
Kerry’s Silver Star citation, awarded for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action”, signed by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, states that the enemy soldier had a B-40 rocket launcher “with a round in the chamber.”
Warsh quoted Kerry (from the Carroll piece): “It was either going to be him or it was going to be us. It was that simple. I don’t know why it wasn’t us – I mean to this day. He had a rocket pointed right at our boat.”
Warsh misspelled Tom Belodeau’s name 13 times.
Warsh referred to Belodeau as the “rear gunner”; Belodeau was the forward gunner.
Warsh reports that Keny was assigned to a boat “whose skipper had been killed”; the skipper was not killed, he was wounded, and is alive today.
Warsh refers to “heavy 50 mm machine guns”; they are .50-caliber machine guns. “50 mm machine guns” are laughable; a reporter with even a cursory attempt at accuracy would have caught the error instantaneously.
Warsh asks: “But were there no eyewitnesses?” There were at least three: Tom Belodeau, Mike Medeiros. John Kerry. All were quoted in the Globe. But Warsh decided that from a distance of 27 years he knew better than they what happened that day. He ignored what they said, he opted instead to write his own personal, vicious, unsubstantiated conjecture.
When you engage in character assassination. you have an absolute obligation to “get it right”. Warsh didn’t even try. Why was he in such a hurry to get his hate-filled column into the paper?
You have always been an aggressive, but responsible newspaper. You have never, until now, stooped this low. So, how did these columns happen? How did they get into your newspaper?
Your journalistic integrity has been trashed by David Warsh, and the editors that OK’d these columns for publication. These columns were not a close call. These columns were flagrantly out of line. 124 years of journalist integrity has been trashed. It will take you years, if not decades. to recover from the stain of these columns.
Hang your head in shame, Boston Globe. Hang your head in deep, deep shame.
/s/ John Hurley
P.S. to Mr. Storin:
And what of you, Mr. Storin?
Did Warsh act entirely on his own? Does the Globe’s policy of complete freedom to its columnists mean that no editor even questioned Warsh about the foundation of his columns? Even when Warsh’s columns are totally outside his field of expertise? Did no editor request even minimal substantiation of his vicious speculation: a witness, a document, a statement? Anything at all?
Does the Globe’s policy of complete freedom to its columnists extend to baseless, personal character assassination? Did you and the editors that work for you fail to see a pattern of vicious, personal attacks by Warsh?
“… there is,” Warsh wrote, “a good, strong, dispassionate reason to prefer Bill Weld to John Kerry.” Fair enough. He’s entitled to endorse whomever he wants to. But then the pattern of attacks began:
Warsh, Oct. 15, 1996: “he was acquired by John Heinz’s widow in a tax-exempt position-for dollars swap.”
Warsh, Oct. 22, 1996: ‘The one thing that seemed hard to abide was a grandstander. A Silver Star for finishing off an unlucky young man?”
Warsh, Oct. 27, 1996: “What’s the ugliest possibility? That behind the hootch, Kerry administered a coup de grace to the Vietnamese soldier – a practice not uncommon in those days but a war crime nevertheless, and hardly the basis for a Silver Star.”
A recurring pattern of vicious, unsubstantiated personal attacks. Is this what constitutes fair and objective comment under the Globe’s current journalistic standards?
The very day Mike Medeiros was quoted in the Globe saying Kerry “saved our lives,” you gave Warsh additional space, and let him – without a single witness, without a single document, without a single supporting statement – viciously speculate about a war crime, for the very act that Medeiros said saved their lives. A war crime? Admiral Zumwalt, the highest ranking Naval officer in Vietnam, stated that John Kerry’s heroism that day was worthy of the Navy Cross, the second highest medal for bravery that our country awards. (But Zumwalt recommended a Silver Star instead, because he wanted to expedite the awards ceremony and boost the morale of his troops who were taking heavy casualties at the time).
Every witness that has spoken, every document that exists. every shred of evidence that has been found states that Kerry acted selflessly, with extraordinary heroism. Yet Warsh, without foundation, without any substantiation whatsoever, conjectures about a war crime. And you print it. Is that the journalistic standard by which you want your reading public, your fellow journalists across the country, your publishers, to judge you and The Boston Globe?
To top off this lame, pathetic performance by you and your editors, you go on television and dismiss Warsh’s columns, saying, “I thought in the long run it might be favorable for Kerry.”
Vicious, unfounded character assassination “might be favorable”? Ludicrous, laughable, stupid, sick.
The basic test of character, Mr. Storin – for a man or a newspaper – is to be able to say, in the face of adversity, “We were wrong, extremely wrong.” You, The Boston Globe, and David Warsh have failed that test, egregiously.
November 13, 1996
Mr. John M. Hurley, Jr., 78 Longfellow Road, Wellesley, MA 02181
Dear Mr. Hurley:
Your thoughtful letter was very painful to read. You made some very harsh charges, most of which I feel were not in the same context with the decision that I was faced with in allowing publication of the David Warsh column. Nearly three decades after a signal event in the career of our junior US Senator, I had a column with a seemingly new version of events and no one willing to come forward to explain it, despite our holding the column for three days. In the midst of an election campaign, to kill such a column under those circumstances was something I could not defend.
Here is the chronology of events that led to my decision:
- Warsh says he has turned up this odd statement by Belodeau that does not appear to square with the previous He writes a first version of the column that lands on our desks on Wednesday. Because we are getting closer to the election, we consider publishing it on the following day, rather than waiting until the next of his regular column dates.
- I telephoned John Marttila, one of Kerry’s senior advisers, and urge him to have the senator talk to Warsh. I assume the discrepancy can be straightened out. John indicates that it is next to impossible to reach the senator, who is on his way to the debate in Springfield.
- I tell my editing colleagues Wednesday night that we must hold the column until we are able to (a.) reach Belodeau for additional clarification and (b.) reach Senator Kerry.
4, Tom Vallely cal1s me Thursday morning and discusses the Warsh I tell him what Belodeau has said (or perhaps he already knew), and he says, in pretty much these exact words, “We have no problem with that. We have no problem with that/ and explains that the guy Belodeau hit got back up and appeared still able to fire his weapon. Frankly, I am relieved to hear this because it’s a plausible explanation and we can avoid even addressing the issue anew. Vallely says he will produce “his (Kerry’s) commanding officer. I got the impression that Tom would also help get Belodeau back to Warsh and possibly the senator himself, though on the latter point I may have been mistaken. I think Tom might have said earlier that the senator would not talk to Warsh. I had to leave for a journalism conference on Long Island, but at this point I am confident that the column will not be a problem.
- Late Friday, I ask to have the column faxed to me. I am very surprised to learn that neither Belodeau nor Kerry has offered anything to Warsh and that the officer has said he was not an eye witness. The New Yorker quote is also puzzling to me. Yet I feel that Warsh deals with the incident with some caution, offering two possibilities. It’s an effort to examine an important incident in the military career of a major public figure who has chosen for some reason — and that is fully his right — to not answer the columnist’s questions.
From the remove of hindsight, it is now obvious that Senator Kerry chose prior to publication to use the column (of which through Vallely and others he probably had accurate knowledge) to his own advantage. Not only is that his privilege, but it appears to have been good politics. In any event, it probably would not have been possible to get Admiral. Zumwalt here between early Sunday morning and the late afternoon press conference, so that is my assumption.
Frankly, the column probably would have disappeared without a trace otherwise. After reading it on Friday, I told our executive editor, Helen Donovan, “I think this is worth 1,000 votes for Kerry.” Given your letter, you are probably incredulous at that, but I felt it humanized the senator in a way that has often not been the case in his career. Of course, I saw the negativity in it, but I thought readers would make their own judgments about the issues – as they do with all our opinion columns.
As to an apology, I would first like to outline what the paper has done in print. We published the story of the press conference on page one Monday, including Belodeau’s explanation for his remark and his account of the battle as well as the testimony of Medeiros, whom our reporter spoke to by telephone. Obviously this piece was presented more prominently than the original column. We then published an op-ed piece by James Carroll, criticizing us in very harsh terms. It is part of our culture to publish a column such as Carroll’s just as it is to publish a column such as Warsh’s. William Safire writes a half dozen speculative columns a year that are as harsh to Bill Clinton as Warsh’s was to Senator Kerry. When was the last time you saw an op-ed piece in the Times that criticized the Times? Finally, we published a piece by our Ombudsman that, like Carroll, said the column should not have been published.
I personally may regret that the column ran, but, given the same set of circumstances again, I would not kill the column. I have to make those decisions in the context of columns we have run in the past and might run again in the future. We were in the middle of a tough campaign, Belodeau had made a statement that seemed at odds with anything previously published, and despite waiting three days, no one had come forth on behalf of Senator Kerry to explain it. I agree that it’s a sign of character to admit when you are wrong and, in some ways, that would be easier to explain than what I am trying to say here. I believe David Warsh may address his own personal feelings in a future column and, possibly, in a conversation with Senator Kerry if that is possible.
It pains me to read that Senator Kerry feels this was a low point in his life. I am certain of one thing: It would have been avoided if he had given a statement to Warsh as we had asked. His failure to respond — even if he wanted to call a press conference in advance — took out of my hand a major argument for changing or killing the column (though I believe Warsh would have treated the subject much differently). Your citation of the Medeiros quote is interesting. The campaign obviously chose to make Medeiros available to another columnist, rather than reply directly to Warsh. That’s another legitimate political decision by the Kerry campaign, but it didn’t help with the decision I had to make on Friday evening (deadlines are earlier for Warsh’s column than for Barnicle’s). I understand that the senator and some of his advisers felt wary of dealing with Warsh, but Tom Vallely and John Marttila knew that I had personally involved myself in the issue and could have phoned me back at any time between Thursday morning and Friday night. Though I was out of town, I was easily reachable.
I do regret — and they are inexcusable — the relatively minor but not insignificant inaccuracies in Warsh’s column that you cited.
In closing, I would like to note that you are a longtime friend of Senator Kerry. I understand you may have even played a role in the campaign’s effort to deal with the Warsh column. I am neither a friend nor supporter of John Kerry nor Bill Weld. I do everything in my power, in terms of social relationships, to put myself in a position to make dispassionate decisions as a journalist. I accept that you are upset with us, but I hope you will sometime reread your letter and recognize that you made some emotional charges that were not justified.
/s/ Matthew V. Storin