The media’s ability to shape opinion derives from its power to slant the news―the pervasive activism known as “media bias”―and also from its power to choose what is and is not reported. But 2004 marked a watershed in American political history. That was the year the old media lost control of our national conversation.
In May 2004, an unprecedented press conference took place at the National Press Club in Washington. Spokesmen for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group consisting of hundreds of Vietnam veterans, charged John Kerry with lying about the extent of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam and with misrepresenting his own military record. The Swift Vets included Kerry’s entire former chain of command from Vietnam and dozens of eyewitnesses to his actions. Kerry, they said, was unfit to be America’s Commander-in-Chief.
The old media responded in classic fashion. CBS News ignored the charges against the Democratic nominee and attacked the veterans, using Kerry campaign talking points. Dan Rather labeled the group a “Republican operation” while Byron Pitts falsely reported that the veterans had used similar tactics against Senators Max Cleland and John McCain. ABC, NBC, and the AP simply pretended the event had never happened.
The story might well have ended there, but the veterans found other ways to reach the public. In August, the group’s multi-pronged information campaign produced the nation’s best-selling book, the Internet’s hottest political website, and perhaps the most effective TV ad campaign in political history. The public found their charges credible, and Kerry’s poll numbers plummeted.
After the election, Democrats and the media continued to attack the veterans, coining and parroting the term “swiftboating” as a reference for underhanded campaign tactics. This sloganeering is intended to obscure the fact that the veterans won all the key debates. Here are some common media myths about their campaign:
Myth: The Swift Vets were an RNC / Karl Rove operation, not an independent group.
In December 2006, the Federal Election Commission completed an exhaustive two-year investigation of the Swift Vets. The FEC fined the group (along with several other “527” organizations) for failing to register as a political action committee. However, the Commission also found that the group “did not unlawfully coordinate its activities” with any candidate or party. This basic fact is rarely mentioned in news stories.
Myth: Kerry had good answers for the Swift Vets’ charges, but his campaign was too slow to respond.
The Kerry campaign’s initial strategy of trusting the media to protect him by ignoring the Swift Vets’ charges collapsed in early August 2004. Kerry directly attacked the Swift Vets just two weeks later, on August 20, and the old media instantly followed suit. Kerry and the Democrats spent the remaining ten weeks before Election Day trying feverishly to refute the veterans’ charges. They also tried to silence the Swift Vets, by filing an FEC complaint, threatening to sue the publisher of Unfit for Command and any TV stations that aired their ads, demanding that President Bush denounce the group, attacking them in newspaper and TV ads, media releases, press conferences and public statements, and helping friendly media outlets prepare hit pieces. Kerry and the DNC used lawsuits, boycotts and threats to suppress the POW documentary Stolen Honor.
None of it worked.
Myth: The Swift Vets were just a small group of malcontents.
The Swift Vets were the most visible portion of a national movement by veterans who had long resented the anti-U.S. “war crimes” propaganda John Kerry used to launch his political career. This wave of grassroots activism included thousands of individual protests, hundreds of websites and newsletters, and a national rally in Washington. It also supplied much of the funding for the Swift Vets’ TV ad campaign.
Myth: The Swift Vet claims against Kerry were unsubstantiated.
The Swift Vets provided compelling evidence to support their charges. For example, the 65-page information package sent to TV stations with the first ad backed every statement the veterans made with sworn affidavits and supporting exhibits. All the stations aired the ads, despite intense pressure from the Democrats. Other information sources such as Unfit for Command and SwiftVets.com were also meticulously documented.
Myth: The official reports support Kerry’s version of events in Vietnam.
The Swift Vets charged Kerry with systematically falsifying his after-action reports to acquire medals. Kerry filed one such “official report” after his final combat mission. It describes a massive ambush by Vietcong guerrillas firing automatic weapons at a group of five Swift boats along a 5,000 meter stretch of river.
However, the Swift Vets said the only enemy action was a single water mine that disabled one of the boats. Instead of returning alone into an ambush, as Kerry claimed, his boat was actually the only one to leave the scene immediately after the mine explosion. An in-depth Washington Post article confirmed this fact, which completely undercut the Kerry campaign’s “No Man Left Behind” advertising. The Swift Vets noted that the crippled boat had remained dead in the water for well over an hour. One boat carried out the wounded while another made a round trip down the river and back to pick up a pump from an offshore ship. All that time the other three boats drifted slowly downstream, through Kerry’s 3-mile “kill zone,” in a river just 75 yards wide. The sailors then stabilized the damaged craft and towed it away. No boats or men were hit by enemy fire.
A month later on a river a few miles away, a convoy of eight Swift boats ran into a real ambush. Two Swift boat sailors were killed, as were three other Navy men. Thirty-three more sailors were wounded. Two Vietnamese Marines were killed and 13 wounded. Twenty-four Vietcong were killed.
The old media’s own war against the Swift Vets still continues. New articles railing against the imagined evils of “swiftboating” are published nearly every day. The authors may choose to console themselves with convenient myths, but their ability to control what Americans know about candidates is gone forever.