In his new book, "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over For Bush," Eric Boehlert dissects the Beltway media's culpability during the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign from the 2004 campaign and concludes the episode "likely delivered Bush the cushion he needed to win in November" and "represented an embarrassing new benchmark for campaign season reporting." "Lapdogs" holds the press accountable for the central role it played in enabling a smear campaign that consumed the crucial campaign month of August 2004 -- "a media monsoon that washed away Kerry's momentum coming out of the Democratic convention."
How, for instance, the Washington Post published 13 page-one Swift Boat stories in 12 days, most of which failed to address the key fact that the Swift boat allegations -- that Kerry lied about his Vietnam War record -- were riddled with errors and compounded by the veterans' fanciful, ever-changing stories. Despite the lack of evidence to substantiate their claims, which were floated 35 years after the fact and bankrolled by partisan Republicans, the press refused, in real time, to call out the Swift Boat allegations as a dirty trick.
"Lapdogs," in bookstores next week, charges that the press, spooked by allegations of liberal bias, has been "afraid of the facts and the consequences of reporting them" during the Bush years.
From Boehlert's "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over For Bush":
For several crucial weeks during the campaign, journalists turned away from the pile-up of Swift Boat falsehoods and contradictions, rarely daring to call the Swift Boat attack out for what it really was--a farce. An elaborate, well-choreographed, well-funded farce that not only dragged down the Kerry campaign, but played the press for fools. At every turn, military records proved the Swift Boat veterans to be untruthful. But Beltway reporters and pundits for the most part remained hesitant, too timid to speak up, as they propped up the veterans as serious men. Their conduct during the manufactured Swift Boat scandal, which likely delivered Bush the cushion he needed to win in November, represented an embarrassing new benchmark for campaign season reporting. Rather than uncovering the obvious gaps in the veterans' wobbly allegations and holding the accusers accountable, the press, spooked about being tagged as too liberal, played dumb on an unprecedented scale, much to the White House's delight.
By the time the Swift Boat story had played out, CNN, chasing after ratings leader Fox News, found time to mention the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth--hereafter, Swifties--in nearly 300 separate news segments, while more than one hundred New York Times articles and columns made mention of the Swifties. And during one overheated 12-day span in late August, the Washington Post mentioned the Swifties in page-one stories on Aug. 19, 20, 21 (two separate articles), 22, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, and 31. It was a media monsoon that washed away Kerry's momentum coming out of the Democratic convention.
Embraced by the Republican's far right media noise machine, led by Fox News, the Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, and the New York Post, the mainstream media refused to stand up to those forces. Instead, the press played along, letting the right wing set the media agenda, and pretending the media's primary duty was to accurately record the Swifty allegations, call the Kerry camp for comment, and then proclaim the story too tangled to figure out. USA Today, for instance, threw up its hands, declaring, "A clear picture of what John Kerry did or did not do in Vietnam 35 years ago may never emerge, given the fog of war, the passage of time and the intense partisan sentiments of the players." A headline on Aug. 27 for Hotline, the daily D.C. media tip sheet announced, " VIETNAM: JUST LIKE THE WAR ITSELF, THIS STORY'S NOW A QUAGMIRE."
In Time, the magazine offered up a one-page scorecard, "Kerry in Combat: Setting the Record Straight." In each account of Kerry's medals, the magazine accurately reported how the Swift Boat charges failed to hold up under any sort of factual scrutiny. Yet Time dutifully restrained itself from coming to the obvious conclusion: The Swift Boat charges were a campaign hoax. After pouring over the facts, ABC News concluded, "35 years later, we may never know the exact truth."
But was the story really that hard for journalists to decipher? As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting suggested in 2004, what if the situation had been reversed and the shoddy Vietnam-ear attacks targeted Bush's war service? What if all the available documents showed that George Bush had fully completed his obligation in the Air National Guard with flying colors? What if virtually every member of his unit said he had been there the whole time, and had done a great job? And then suppose a group of fiercely partisan Democrats who never actually served in Bush's Guard unit came forward to claim for the first time--and 35 years after the fact--that Guard documents and the first-hand accounts were wrong, and that Bush really hadn't been present for his Guard service. Would the MSM really have had a hard time figuring out who was telling the truth, and would the MSM really have showered the accusers with weeks worth of free media coverage?
But playing dumb about the Swifties had become epidemic among journalists who must have known better. At one point, NBC's Tim Russert asked a guest, "If the substance of many of the charges [from] "Unfit for Command," aren't holding up...why is it resonating so much?" Like so many other journalists, Russert refused to acknowledge the media's integral role in turning the Swifty story into a news phenomenon. Why was it "resonating so much" Russert wondered out loud. Maybe because in the month of August, 2004, NBC network news alone covered the Swift Boat story on Aug. 8, 15, 19, 20, 22, 23, 25, 26, and 29. CBS covered the story Aug. 8, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, and 30, while ABC devoted airtime to it on Aug. 6, 8, 9, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 25, and 26. Some of the networks, using different morning and evening news programs, returned to the topic several times in one day. For instance on Aug 23, CBS reported on the Swifty controversy four different times, which, of course, represented four more times than the CBS News division reported on questions surrounding Bush's Guard service during the entire 2000 campaign.
Reporters had the power the knock the phony Swift Boat story down fast and reveal it for the dirty trick it was, but too many chose not to. Relatively early on in the August coverage, ABC's Nightline devoted an entire episode to the allegations and reported, "The Kerry campaign calls the charges wrong, offensive and politically motivated. And points to Naval records that seemingly contradict the charges." (Emphasis added.) Seemingly? A more accurate phrasing would have been that Navy records "completely" or "thoroughly" contradicted the Swifties. But that would have meant not only having to stand up a well-funded Republican campaign attack machine, but also casting doubt on television news' hottest political story of the summer.
Hosting an Aug. 28 discussion on CNBC with Newsweek's Jon Meacham and Time's Jay Carney, NBC's Tim Russert finally, after weeks of overheated Swifty coverage, got around to asking the pertinent question: "Based on everything you have heard, seen, reported, in terms of the actual charges, the content of the book, is there any validity to any of it?" Carney conceded the charges did not have any validity, but did it oh, so gently: "I think it's hard to say that any one of them is by any standard that we measure these things has been substantiated." Apparently Carney forgot to pass the word along to editors at Time magazine, which is read by significantly more news consumers than Russert's weekly cable chat show on CNBC. Because it wasn't until its Sept. 20 2004 issue, well after the Swift Boat controversy had peaked, that the Time news team managed enough courage to tentatively announce the charges levied against Kerry and his combat service were "reckless and unfair." (Better late than never; Time's competitor Newsweek waited until after the election to report the Swift Boat charges were "misleading," but "very effective.") But even then, Time didn't hold the Swifties responsible for their "reckless and unfair" charges. Instead, Time celebrated them. Typing up an election postscript in November, Time toasted the Swift Boat's O'Neill as one of the campaign's "Winners," while remaining dutifully silent about the group's fraudulent charges.