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Murtha 'Swift-Boating' Runs Aground

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Are the media learning? The Washington Post took the bait from a conservative news site trashing Rep. John Murtha's military career, and gave it legitimacy. The WaPo story fueled the flames with quotes like "Jack's a coward, and he's a liar" -- just because it said so on a website. It looked like what happened to John Kerry would happen again to John Murtha, with the accusations morphing into "news" simply because it was repeated and amplified.

But a search of Google shows that the story got little traction among the standard news outlets. The New York Times carried a strong op-ed by James Webb, President Reagan's Secretary of the Navy, denouncing the "tearing down the reputations of veterans who oppose them" in general and of John Murtha in particular.

The accusations against Mr. Murtha were very old news, principally coming from defeated political rivals. Aligned against their charges are an official letter from Marine Corps Headquarters written nearly 40 years ago affirming Mr. Murtha's eligibility for his Purple Hearts -- "you are entitled to the Purple Heart and a Gold Star in lieu of a second Purple Heart for wounds received in action" -- and the strict tradition of the Marine Corps regarding awards. While in other services lower-level commanders have frequently had authority to issue prestigious awards, in the Marines Mr. Murtha's Vietnam Bronze Star would have required the approval of four different awards boards.

WaPo's Howard Kurtz defended his biting at the accusations, arguing that "the mere fact of this effort against Murtha was newsworthy," but it seems that he was the one bitten. Fellow WaPo columnist E.J. Dionne noted that "the charges are remarkably flimsy," and criticized the tactic of "personal vilification to abort honest political debate."

It's a tactic that the news media have too readily abetted. Is that finally changing?