Swifter Than Truth

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 co-authored Bush's Brain, the 2003 exposé 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.

After another week of thinking, Slater told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, "An alternative would have been somehow for all of us to have taken a breath and waited until we could evaluate the specific charges with respect to the medals, and then write … that the charges themselves about the medals lacked merit."

The Swifties cracked the media code and aggressively exploited it. Story after story alluded indiscriminately to veterans contradicting one another -- without clarifying that no documents supported O'Neill's slurs about Kerry's medals; nor did any of Kerry's crewmates. Reporters did not, in general, report that what seemed to be driving the Swifties was anger at Kerry's anti-war charges, the subject of their second ad. Not one reporter -- besides, I must disclose, this writer, on Salon -- cited the 1971 Vietnam Veterans against the War testimony on which Kerry relied (71 vets saying that they had witnessed war crimes and 13 more that they had committed them).

Instead, what emerged from much journalism was a messy picture of charges and countercharges piling up indiscriminately in a "vituperative," "hypernasty," "mean," "vicious" campaign. "Slime is slime," as Howard Fineman and Michael Isikoff wrote in a Newsweek cover story -- ugly lies, true accusations, and, later, the forgeries that CBS suckered itself into running with, all stirred together into a casserole of indistinguishable slime.

What about exercising reportorial authority to call a falsehood a falsehood? Or is a reporter someone who nods and uh-huhs while talking heads declare that the Earth is flat? Sooner than take it upon themselves to say what the truth is, most American journalists feel professionally obliged to observe the rule of reticence. "I don't know that it's the media's responsibility to reply," Slater says. And he is a knowledgeable reporter.

Again and again during the Swift-boat affair, television opted for dumb-bunny neutrality. The cable yellfests' choices of guests are, shall we say, promiscuous. As one network correspondent puts it, "Because of job cutbacks now, a lot of the bookers are young and inexperienced." For two weeks after the first ad went public, O'Neill stated his views again and again without being called on them -- not by George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week, nor by Wolf Blitzer. (Chris Matthews, actually, challenged him.)

On CNN, Blitzer stood mute when O'Neill told him, "I've had no serious involvement in politics of any kind in over 32 years" -- either not knowing, not caring, or not considering it his job to note that O'Neill had contributed $15,000 to Republicans since 1990. Blitzer was too busy relishing his "get" to address the little question of truth when Bob Dole, perhaps overdosed on Viagra, declared on his show that Kerry "never bled that I know of … .What I will always quarrel about are the Purple Hearts … he got two in one day, I think." Later discussion on CNN focused on whether Dole was "mean," not whether he was telling the truth -- which he wasn't. Blitzer chatted on, amiably.

While CBS and NBC barely disputed the Swifties' accusations, ABC correspondent Jake Tapper's reports were exemplary. He showed some of the Swifties contradicting themselves. He declared bluntly what other networks didn't. In his first piece, on Good Morning America on August 6, he chided the Swifties: "None of them served with Kerry on his boat. His actual crewmates reject their charges." On Nightline on August 9, he referred to "these critics, only one of whom has served under Kerry's command." On Good Morning America on August 20, he said, "None of the charges are supported by naval records and all are contradicted by Kerry's crewmates." When he reported the charge by Larry Thurlow, a former Swift-boat commander, that Kerry had lied, he added, "This disputes naval records and Jim Rassmann," the sailor whom Kerry saved.

Slater, like other reporters, blames the Kerry campaign for reacting late. (One network reporter told me that the whole affair was "half Kerry's fault, half the press'.") Why weren't they forewarned? The Swift-boat charges have dogged Kerry for decades. Slater says, "If the Kerry people had seen this, on day one they could have been there with their packet of information." If the Kerry campaign had tried an equivalent gambit against George W. Bush, he says, "Rove would have been ready." Instead, Kerry waited 15 days before going public against the Swifties. A Kerry staffer who asked to remain anonymous says, with weird passivity, "Before Kerry spoke to the issue [on August 19], not a single reporter ever said we should speak to it." But why should Kerry have taken his cues from reporters? The conflagration sucked two weeks of oxygen out of his campaign before he sent firefighters to help.

Newsweek's Trent Gegax, who covers the Kerry campaign, tells me that "Kerry himself was afraid that [if he rebutted the Swifties' first ad directly] it would hit the national news that night. The Kerry people dug themselves into a hole -- relying on the media to do their job. They kept trying to defend something they shouldn't have to defend. Why didn't they say, 'Let's talk about where Kerry was and compare it to where George Bush was?' They didn't fight back hard. Ultimately, it's not the media's responsibility to do that work for them."

Someone who worked on the story for ABC News also faulted the Kerry campaign, saying: "When it came to the details of what actually happened in combat, we did not get a huge amount of help from the Kerry people. We've been trying to get stuff from Kerry's side that they won't release. There's a big suspicion that this campaign hasn't vetted their own candidate." When the mud flew, Kerry staffers were unprepared.

Kerry spokesman Chad Clanton defends the candidate's wait-'em-out strategy. "It's always a difficult decision what issues to elevate," he says. "This group had spent less than $200,000 on their ad buy and was getting only a marginal level of press interest." Against reporters' charge that the campaign wasn't quick to release its documentary evidence, Clanton insists: "We had all that stuff ready to go. We put his entire Navy file on the Internet."

As for his diaries and other writings of that time, Kerry "had an [exclusivity] agreement with Douglas Brinkley." But Brinkley tells me that Kerry "can do whatever he wants" with the diaries, notebooks, and other Kerry materials he used for his book. "I don't own any literary rights to any Kerry materials."

Shoulda, woulda, coulda. August is toast. The Swifties were swifter than the journalists, swifter than Kerry's campaign, swifter than truth. "It was a ridiculous story," says Newsweek's Gegax. "It was ridiculous to carry on for weeks when the ads were built on claims that weren't backed up by any documentation. There were misstatements and out-and-out lies that kept this going."

Who wants to bet that journalism has learned?

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Letters to a Young Activist.

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