Matt Lauer wasn't playing around.
Sure, he was sitting down with celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley, a controversial figure whose assertions about President Bush's family in a new book already had some news organizations playing the squeamish card.
Speaking with her on the Today show Monday, one day before publication of The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, Lauer was kicking off the first of three appearances by the author on the popular morning show.
Thanks to complaints from the White House, which had asked NBC News to cancel her appearances on Today and cable channel MSNBC, criticism was already building over providing such a widely watched forum for a book filled with potentially damaging allegations weeks before a close election.
So Lauer wasn't going to make it easy.
"Do you think your standards for making accusations _ for proof of sources _ need to rise when you're dealing with a sitting president of the United States?" he asked, brushing aside a compliment. He called the book "99 percent negative," and even asked Kelley whom she planned to vote for in November.
In part, it was Standard Operating Procedure for the Today show, which sometimes counters furor over controversial interview subjects by getting tough with them when they finally do appear. But Lauer's grilling of Kelley is also an example of the skepticism the media should apply to incendiary charges aired just before an election.
Unfortunately, it may already be too late to help this campaign.
Thanks to the explosion of information available on the Internet, cable TV, satellite and radio, today's national press operates in a high-velocity news cycle that never ends. In the case of Kobe Bryant and Scott Peterson, that means endless footage of their court appearances and speculation on legal strategies.
But when talk turns to the race for the presidency, the impact of misleading or inaccurate assertions grows. From charges that Bush got preferential treatment in the National Guard, to assertions that John Kerry lied to receive his war medals, to allegations that CBS News was duped by faked documents on Bush's Guard service, the wrangling over complex, damaging charges in the media has grown more intense than ever.
At the center of it all a simple question: Where's the truth?
Experts predict it will get worse.
"Put your seat belt on," said David Bohrman, White House bureau chief for CNN. "We've got another six weeks of this coming."
A confused scramble for the truth
Consider the allegations that Bush used family connections to get into the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, failed to meet training requirements, was grounded after missing a required physical and may have seen political pressure employed to "sugarcoat" his performance review.
Sparked in part by documents unearthed by CBS News on Sept. 8 for its 60 Minutes show, the charges drew immediate denials from GOP and White House spokesmen. The day after CBS's story aired, several Internet Web logs and talk radio outlets also began suggesting that the documents used by CBS News could be fakes.
By the end of that week, mainstream media from the Associated Press to the Dallas Morning News, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and CNN were quoting document experts who agreed the memos might be fakes. But as news organizations last week struggled over the accuracy of CBS's facts, a central truth remained in the background. According to documents released by the Defense Department in response to a lawsuit by the Associated Press, Bush did fail to meet some requirements of his National Guard service and was grounded as a pilot after missing a required physical.
On Wednesday, CBS tried salvaging its story by airing another 60 Minutes episode in which a secretary of the man who purportedly created the documents at the heart of the initial story said the papers were probably fakes _ but the content was true.
The quick challenge of the Bush/National Guard stories was a marked departure from the reaction just about a month ago, when some major news outlets took weeks to thoroughly analyze allegations by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that Democratic candidate John Kerry lied to get his war medals.
Back then, the charges simmered in the news cycle _ helped by Kerry's own reticence to directly address the allegations _ feeding a controversy that eventually hurt him in the polls.
For Wayne Slater, Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, the Swift Boat controversy brought uncomfortable questions. "As journalists . . . is it our obligation to (validate) every single piece of information, and then decide to print?" he asked.
"On the other hand, if we don't write about an episode and it becomes a huge topic on talk radio and cable news, do we look like we're favoring one side?" Slater added. "The very process of raising an issue and introducing it into debate can spoil the process."
Certainly, efforts by the Bush campaign and the nation's extensive network of conservative-leaning media _ ranging from the Drudge Report Web site to RatherBiased.com and a host of radio talk shows _ helped raise questions about the National Guard stories.
But during the final weeks of a close presidential election with an evenly divided electorate, there's also more pressure to test incendiary charges before they grow to dominate the news cycle.
"The media is doing the fact-checking it can . . . (but) there is a real big-league mudslinging contest going on, and it would be foolish for us to close our eyes to this," said CNN's Bohrman. "More (sources) seem to be stepping up to speak who haven't spoken in the past, and the (news) cycle on cable news is so fast, it's immediate."
Give me that old-time reporting
He calls it the "new journalism of assertion," in which some media outlets simply report charges and let the audience sort it all out.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says such journalism emerges thanks to today's fast-paced news cycles _ increasing the likelihood reporters won't properly validate allegations before airing them.
Ironically, what news consumers really need now is a bracing dose of old-school reporting _ which Rosenstiel calls the "old journalism of verification."
"In the modern information culture, there's even more need for journalists and journalism to help guide people . . . (and show) them, "What here can you believe?' " he said.
For example, when the swift boat group's anti-Kerry ads first began to air after the Democratic National Convention, the New York Times spent more than two weeks sifting through their charges before producing a story published Aug. 20 that systematically challenged many of their allegations.
Now, when referring to the group's allegations about Kerry's medals, New York Times stories often attach the adjective "unsubstantiated."
"The most valuable thing in an environment of information overload is some guidance as to which information is the most valuable," Rosenstiel said. "In the modern world, it's not enough to provide facts; the press has to provide the truth behind the facts."
Indeed, that may be the toughest task for those consuming campaign news these days: finding the difference between "facts" and the truth.
Nightline anchor Ted Koppel outlined the issue during a recent on-air discussion with Daily Show host Jon Stewart, trying to soothe Stewart's anger over the success of the Swift Boat Veterans.
Koppel noted that journalists can report facts _ veterans who served in Vietnam at the same time as Kerry are saying that he lied to win war medals, for example _ without getting at the truth of the charges themselves.
"Is it news? Sure it is," the Nightline anchor continued. "Is it the truth? No. The truth may not . . . catch up for another week or two or six."
Of course, for every media-related problem, there's often a media-related answer. In this case, help can be found at some nonpartisan Web sites devoted to knocking down rumors and clarifying the misleading accounts from all sides.
Sites such as Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Campaign Desk (www.campaigndesk.org), the Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck (www.factcheck.org) and the independently operated Spinsanity (www.spinsanity.org), focus on exposing the truth behind facts, figures and allegations tossed around on the campaign trail.
FactCheck has noted that Kerry's claim of $200-billion spent in Iraq includes $70-billion to be spent next fiscal year, for example. Spinsanity has outlined the Bush campaign's habit of presenting Kerry's Senate votes on huge, multilayered bills as individual decisions on specific issues.
Though the trio of analysts who run Spinsanity take on Democrats and Republicans alike, they have also authored a book on how the Bush administration systematically exploits the gap between accuracy and truth called All the President's Spin: George W. Bush, the Media and the Truth.
They suggest Bush's team takes advantage of four stratagems, inspired by both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, to spin the media.
+ Reporters' fear of bias accusations may prompt them to avoid testing the truth of misleading political statements, adopting a "he said/she said" approach to reporting controversies that lends crediblity to specious charges.
+ Reporters need information from offices and departments controlled by incumbent politicians for news. Restricting the flow of information can shape coverage (limiting stories of war dead by banning photos of coffins arriving in the U.S. from Iraq, for example).
+ The White House can bring political pressure and reprisal to bear against journalists it views as too critical.
+ The media's pursuit of scandal and entertaining news can blind it to serious public policy issues.
"Most of the time, Bush has gotten away with half-truths," said Spinsanity analyst Brendan Nyhan, a graduate student at Duke University. "He'll connect Iraq to 9/11 by saying people there were celebrating the attacks. Well, they may have been, but is that really a link (that validates) the Iraq war?"
Nyhan and Spinsanity have criticized Kerry for his own rhetorical blurring, including criticizing Bush for American job losses totaling 1.6-million when the total of U.S. job losses is more like 913,000.
"It's not that the media hasn't fact-checked George Bush," Nyhan said. "But it rarely has changed the narrative that (affects how) the media covers him. The media didn't connect the dots in terms of the pattern of deception used over the course of his term."
The Dallas Morning News' Slater, author of a biography of Bush adviser Karl Rove called Bush's Brain, said he has seen such dynamics up close in his years spent covering Bush during his time as Texas governor and president.
In one instance, he recalled how Rove browbeat him over a critical story before a group of reporters, sending a subtle message to the others of what might happen if they presented similar coverage. During a recent interview, Slater recalled how one big-shot Washington journalist new to covering Bush once requested he ask an incisive question on China policy at a news conference. The big shot feared that asking the question himself would prompt the White House to quickly label him a troublemaker.
"Far from being this confident force, the national press corps can be amazingly timid," said Slater, who felt insulated from such concerns by years of contacts amassed covering the Bush family in Texas. "I was seeing early on how this fear of being shut out in a highly competitive environment does weigh heavily."
Slater also said the success of the Swift Boat Veterans' charges reminded him of a political strategy often cited by Rove: If you're explaining, you're losing.
"Under those rules . . . (once) you raise the issue and (force Democrats to address it), Kerry loses," said Slater. "He may be able to refute the points, but the issue itself is out there."