Josh Marshall has been on a tear about the Swift Boat controversy nearly as much as I have. Its repercussions could inflict lasting damage not only the Kerry campaign but also public perception of the media. No doubt liberals are becoming increasingly angered by the media’s acquiescence to the agenda of the right.

There’s been much written about the leading media’s feigned helplessness on this issue. The basic argument is that they (NY Times, Washington Post, La Times, the networks, etc.) had to cover the story because talk radio and cable talk (don’t call them news) shows covered it.

Alison Mitchell, deputy national editor for The New York Times, points to the changing media landscape and its impact on what newspapers choose to cover. “I’m not sure that in an era of no-cable television we would even have looked into it,” she said.

But the top media must admit to contributing to the credibility of cable talk shows because its reporters show up on those very shows. Sometimes you get the sense that reporters like Dana Priest of The Washington Post would prefer having her nails pulled off than be on these shows, but there she is, trying her best to provide some legitimate perspective to the story but being hopelessly overwhelmed by the host.

Why are they there?

Are the reporters paid to appear? If so, they have a conflict of interest: financially benefiting while supporting lying lines of attack by their mere presence.

Are their newspapers telling the reporters to appear? Is it to help sell papers? Are editors hoping that the reporter will be so fascinating that s/he will attract more readers to their papers? Again, a conflict of interest.

I won’t argue that without being on these shows the stories will die, but if legitimate news operations feel on balance certain shows are not fair and objective then they should not add to their credibility by appearing on them. The committed right wingers will hear the stories on Rush’s, Sean’s and O’Reilly’s shows, but many fewer independent and fair-minded voters will.

And is that such a bad thing?