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Rosen: Story is none too 'swift'

Published October 27, 2006 at midnight

Semantic infiltration. That's the tactic of getting your politically spun term accepted into general usage as an objective description in national discourse and the media. For example, if you're anti-abortion, you lobby for the emotionally charged term "unborn baby" rather than the more clinical "fetus." If you're a liberal who likes to shower hundreds of billions on social programs, you prefer the euphemism "investments" to "government spending." Mandatory Social Security taxes are often described with the friendlier term "contributions."

In a column earlier this year, I spotlighted "swiftboating" as a currently fashionable example of semantic infiltration used to deflect valid criticism of the likes of Cindy Sheehan, John Murtha and Al Gore. It's a loaded, critical term coined by leftists during the 2004 presidential campaign to counter Vietnam swift boat vets who challenged John Kerry's questionable claims of heroism in that war. I expect liberals to wield the term if they can get away with it. But I cautioned supposedly objective journalists to be wary of joining their cause in the use of that word. Apparently, to no avail.

Here's a recent case study. On Oct. 17, the Rocky Mountain News ran a story about an inaccurate attack ad in a local congressional campaign. The story included a sidebar under the heading, "Ever been 'swiftboated?' " In it, we were told the term has "spread into the English vernacular." We were also supplied with the following exclusive definition from the Web site, "Swiftboated - To be unfairly and inaccurately attacked relentlessly in the media."

Well, I went to that site. It's not really a dictionary, it's a slang clearinghouse, a repository of postings from people who sign on and write whatever they want. Then, other people get to vote on the definitions by indicating their approval or disapproval of the offerings with a thumbs up or thumbs down. There were numerous variations of "swiftboating" to choose from, including some of an anti-Kerry nature not included in the sidebar, like: "The act of exposing the exaggerated claims of a person seeking to promote themselves (sic) into a position of authority." Or this one: "To be outed as a hypocritical liar." From the vote tallies on this and other politically charged or hip terms, it appears the site is dominated by predominantly young and liberal would-be lexicologists.

At another Web site, Vets for Truth, a group critical of Rep. John Murtha defines "swiftboating" as, "exposing the lies, deceit and fraud of self-glorifying public officials or candidates for office who exaggerate their military service by lying about their feats of heroism and combat wounds."

Apparently, there's some disagreement over the definition of the term. But you wouldn't know it from reading the News story. The author of the story states as a matter of fact in his own voice, not attributed to some third party, that the 2004 anti-Kerry "Swiftboat ads featured a group of Vietnam veterans making unsubstantiated allegations challenging Kerry's record of wartime heroism. Kerry's hesitation to fight back was seen as a major flaw in his campaign to defeat President Bush. Since then the word swiftboat has become a staple in the debate on the ethics of using nonsupported allegations to attack candidates or ideas."

To be sure, there are those who spin the incident just this way, including some liberal reporters. But that doesn't make it objectively true. I'd call it one-sided, revisionist history. Another arguable interpretation would be that Kerry's claims of heroism were exaggerated, self-serving and disputed by other swift boat vets with firsthand knowledge of the events. Kerry did, in fact, fight back, but not persuasively. And liberals have contrived the term "swiftboated" to dodge accountability in the face of valid charges in a cynical attempt to discredit their accusers.

John O'Neill and the other Swift Boat Vets for Truth are adamant that Kerry was lying. The dispute was never resolved. Come on, News, fair-and-balanced ethical reporters aren't supposed to take sides.

An unfair attack should be exposed as an unfair attack, and heaven knows that during election campaigns the radio and TV airwaves are polluted with foul, unfair attack ads on both sides. But this dispute is about terminology. When reporters glibly label an unfair attack as "swiftboating," they're playing politics by accommodating left-wing semantic infiltration and certifying a partisan and debatable historical premise that John Kerry's swift boat critics were, in fact, guilty of an unfair attack. In the name of balance and accuracy, the term should be eliminated from journalistic stylebooks.

Mike Rosen's radio show airs daily from 9 a.m. to noon on 850 KOA. He can be reached by e-mail at .

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