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No Swift-Boating Here: How the media transformed the Bergdahl saga

Captive Soldier

FILE: A video released by the Taliban shows footage of Bowe Bergdahl. (AP)

The media narrative on Bowe Bergdahl has changed dramatically since President Obama stood in the Rose Garden with his parents to hail the sergeant’s release. And I’d argue that the pendulum swing reflects good, solid reporting.

The media shouldn’t court-martial the guy, not with so many unanswered questions. But many news organizations have helped dispel the administration’s spin on the prisoner exchange that freed him, and in a way that goes beyond the usual left-right slugfest.

That’s why I was surprised to see MSNBC’s Ari Melber take this whack at the conservative media:

“A former POW under treatment at a military hospital is being Swift-boated by the reflexive anti-Obama machine.”

First, a Swift Boat assault is shorthand for a series of unfair smears. What most of the MSM have reported about Bergdahl and the circumstances surrounding his release are facts.

Second, to cast the critical reporting as pure partisanship by Fox and others is to live in a hermetically sealed bubble. CNN and the New York Times were aggressive in interviewing soldiers who served with Bergdahl and are angry about what they see as a desertion from his Afghan post that put other lives at risk. The AP says the Pentagon concluded he walked off base back in 2010. The White House hasn’t denied it, saying that’s a subject for later consideration and the important thing was to leave no American in captivity. But this reporting knocked down the ludicrous claim by Susan Rice, on yet another round of Sunday shows, that Bergdahl had served with “honor and distinction.”

Third, I guess Melber, a writer for the Nation, is sensitive about Swift-boating because he worked for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. But let's not rob the term of its real meaning.

What’s more, the Bergdahl “ashamed to be American” email to his parents was reported in 2012 by Rolling Stone and the late Michael Hastings, neither part of the vast right-wing conspiracy.

The story has also been driven by anger in Congress on the president’s decision to give the required notice on releasing Gitmo prisoners–including such Democrats as Dianne Feinstein. That has given the criticism a bipartisan tone, much like the outrage from both sides of the aisle over the VA scandal.

And the mere fact that the White House miscalculated how the prisoner swap would play is evidence of political bumbling, and fair game for skeptical coverage.

Now the debate over the decision itself—should an American be traded for five of the Taliban’s worst terrorists—has broken along more partisan lines. Republicans ripping Obama conveniently forget that Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages in the 1980s. Democrats defending Obama might have had a different view if George W. Bush had made the trade. But it’s a healthy debate for the country.

Have there been rhetorical excesses? Of course. Are some Republicans secretly pleased to have another reason to attack Obama? Yes. But the president, in hosting the parents at the White House, was also happy to receive any political benefits when he thought the freeing of an American would play well.

I do think, as I argued with Bill O’Reilly last night, that we ought to cut Bob Bergdahl some slack. Some of what he's said has made me uncomfortable, but he’s been through a five-year hell of having his son missing, and he didn’t desert a military unit. He’s not the issue.

We have much to learn about what Bergdahl did, and so far, in recovery, he’s not been able to speak for himself. But journalists also have a responsibility to hold the administration accountable.

Obama’s event with Bergdahl’s parents brought this reaction from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, no card-carrying conservative:

“So touching. So warm. So utterly repellent! Did the president know that their son was being accused of desertion? Did he care? As commander in chief, did he ponder what he owed the many millions of soldiers who were also scared or fed up with war – but did not allegedly amble off?”

There are times when the administration gets whacked unfairly by the right. The Bergdahl mess cuts across partisan lines. Even Chris Matthews has challenged the administration’s spin last night, declaring on MSNBC: “Wait a minute! The swift boating of John Kerry was a dishonest PR campaign!” 

Maybe he should send the transcript to his colleague Ari Melber.

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.