Reporting on the trade that freed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban is rife with pitfalls and opportunities for the news media.
Like so many things in our hyperpolarized climate, the five-for-one deal rapidly became a political piñata. President Obama's foes portray it as yet another sign of both his highhandedness and his weakness, while the left decries criticism of Bergdahl, who had walked away from his base before being captured, as Swift Boat II.
Under such incendiary conditions, it's critical for the media to carefully distinguish between fact and rhetoric, to steer clear of embracing the meme of the moment until it is vetted.
On the other hand, the myriad complicated and disputed elements to the unfolding story provide an opening for serious explanatory journalism, journalism that can help the American people sort things out in a saga that shifted quickly from joyous Rose Garden ceremony to acrimonious debate.
For make no mistake, this is the real deal. This isn't the second coming of Benghazi, a tragic and much-investigated episode which the Republicans continue to flog despite the improbability of any substantive or political payoff. It's become a mantra, as if simply invoking that sinister word — "Benghazi" — will shake the Democratic Party to its very foundation.
Nor is it fair to equate the Bergdahl episode with the vicious and unfounded Swift Boat attacks on Sen. John Kerry's war record during the 2004 presidential campaign.
SUPPORT AT HOME: Despite attacks, Hailey residents stand behind Bergdahl
An unrepentant Obama has tried to dismiss the furor as simply typical inside-the-Beltway noise. "I'm never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington, all right?" he said. "That's par for the course."
But this is not another fleeting flap du jour. There are many serious questions about Bergdahl's behavior before his capture and the trade itself that need answers, and it's the duty of the news media to help track them down.
•The circumstances that led to Bergdahl's capture. It's clear that Bergdahl left his base. But that doesn't necessarily make him a deserter, someone who had no intention of returning. The soldier had wandered off before. But the distinction is important. Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism official best known for questioning the rationale for invading Iraq, told Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Michael Smerconish that if Bergdahl were in fact a deserter, "then I'd be less concerned about getting him back." Full reporting on Bergdahl the solider is crucial.
•The Obama administration's failure to notify Congress about the forthcoming trade. The National Defense Authorization Act requires Congress to receive 30 days' notice. The administration has put forth several unconvincing accounts of why it didn't have to provide it in this case. This is certainly an area that deserves robust debate and exploration.
•The deal itself. Did the United States give up too much by freeing five dangerous Taliban hard guys who may return to key roles on the battlefield? (Of course, while it's unlikely their confinement at Gitmo made them more pro-West, maybe they'll be mellowed by the malls of Qatar during the year they are supposed to spend in that oil-rich Persian Gulf nation.) Sure, the U.S. brings back its captured soldiers, but whether it paid too steep a price in this instance and under these circumstances is certainly fair game.
•Did American soldiers die trying to find Bergdahl? That's the allegation from some of his fellow soldiers, and it began to gain traction shortly after his release. The New York Times published a strong piece suggesting their claims were overstated.
•How serious were Bergdahl's health problems? The Obama administration has portrayed them as so dire that they were the driving force behind the swap.
But there's little debate over the Obama administration's botched handling of the situation. It has gotten thumbs down from people on both sides of the aisle, from the stonewalling of Congress to the feel-good White House ceremony to the failure to anticipate the reaction and plan accordingly.
And once again, there was tone-deaf national security adviser Susan Rice, having learned nothing from her own Benghazi talking points nightmare on TV, returning to the Sunday talk shows to proclaim Bergdahl had served the country with "honor and distinction."
Memo to Obama administration: Whatever you do, keep Susan Rice off television. Especially on Sunday.