Magazine article The American Prospect

Swifter Than Truth: During the "Swift"-Boat Scandal, the Press, Supposedly Being "Balanced," Helped Spread Lies. Anyone Believe That the Press Has Learned a Lesson?

Magazine article The American Prospect

Swifter Than Truth: During the "Swift"-Boat Scandal, the Press, Supposedly Being "Balanced," Helped Spread Lies. Anyone Believe That the Press Has Learned a Lesson?

Article excerpt

HISTORIANS OF THE MAD PAGEANT IN which Americans chose their president in 2004 will someday note with astonishment that the quote-unquote Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, many of its members inveterate liars more swift than truthful, succeeded in hijacking the presidential campaign for the better part of the month of August, nearly one-third of the total time left to John Kerry after his apparently triumphal convention.

The story of how candidate Kerry miscalculated the explosive power of the Swifties' charges and thereby lost control of his campaign will someday be told, either in relief that the damage was eventually undone or dismay that it was not. The story of how journalists performed as accomplices to liars and half-truth tellers, thereby buying them piles of publicity that money couldn't have bought, can begin to be told now.

How did it happen? And if journalists did escort the Swifties into the limelight with a bodyguard of publicity, why did they do that, and what should they have done instead?

Readers who spent August anywhere but on a desert island will recall that for two weeks, clips of the Swifties' ads, with interview supplements, wallpapered Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, and their fellow shovelers in the boiler room of the Republican smear machine sweated away. Their claims then percolated into the rest of the media--the networks' evening and morning news, the Sunday shows, the newspapers. For most of August, this was the story. Whatever Kerry said about health care, Iraq, and jobs instantly became Topics B, C, and D; "Swift"-boats were Topic A. A low six-figure ad buy became the slander heard 'round the world.

No one in the press corps knows more about Karl Rove and dirty tricks than Wayne Slater. The Dallas Morning News' senior political writer, Slater coauthored Bush's Brain, the 2003 expose of Rove that is now also the subject (and title) of a devastating documentary, and wrote some of the first stories detailing the Swifties' tactics and connections to Republicans.

"This is [Rove's] pattern," he told me. "Go after an opponent's strength and leave no fingerprints." Now, such dirty work is easier than ever. Right-wing noisemakers and their cable fellow travelers cow the media establishment. (Alison Mitchell, the deputy national editor of The New York Times, told Editor & Publisher, "I'm not sure that in an era of no cable television we would even have looked into [the Swift-boat story].") "If basic media had largely not reported this when it was largely a phenomenon of the blog-Web Limbaugh world," Slater added, "there would still have been this powerful clamor: 'Why don't you guys go after this?' Now that we're yelled at so much by Fox News and Limbaugh, the error is to bend on the side of the charges. The Bush people win by sheer publicity."

But Slater doesn't know what else reporters could have done. "Our obligation is to report," Slater says. "There are two things to say: one is, an organization is saying something; second, evaluate whether these charges have any merit. I have a problem being used as a stooge to transmit information that may well be irresponsible. But if the gate's closed too much, I don't like that, either. I'm not positive that there was anything to be done that significantly changes this."

I remind Slater that a spring rumor linking Kerry to a young girlfriend was successfully confined to the right-wing fringe of Drudge and Co. Major networks and newspapers refused to touch the smear, at least long enough for the woman in question to come forward with a flat denial. That ended that.

Why not, then, hold the stories about the Swifties' ads until reporters had had a chance to read Unfit for Command, the book by John O'Neill, who's played Inspector Javert to Kerry's Jean Valjean ever since 1971. "A good idea," Slater says. "But it denies the idea of writing about conflict." There was, after all, already a Kerry version in the public eye: Kerry's entourage of crewmates, combined with Douglas Brinkley's book Tour of Duty, which enraged the Swifties. …

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