When a prominent group of New York City firefighters attacked Rudy Giuliani's handling of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and when they posted a video online puncturing what they called the "urban legend of America's Mayor," the political press knew what to do -- it anointed the first responders as this election cycle's Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Newsweek, Time, MSNBC, the New York Daily News, and scores more all agreed that the firefighters were just like the Vietnam veterans who targeted the military service of Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) during the 2004 presidential run.
But that's the king of phony comparisons. And by making it, the press, once again, is letting the lying Swift Boat Vets off easy.
The media coverage is important because journalists will play a key role in establishing the legacy of the Swift Boat Vets. On the extreme, hyper-partisans such as Rush Limbaugh, along with factually challenged bloggers like Power Line's John Hinderaker, loudly claim the Swift Boat vets were vindicated, that "What the swift boat guys were saying was true!" (Limbaugh) and that, "Most of what the Vets said in their ads has never been disputed, let alone discredited" (Hinderaker). That spin is pure fantasy, which is why it was so easy for me to demolish it here and here.
There's little danger the mainstream press would adopt that kind of Swift-Boat-Vets-were-vindicated narrative. But the press does seem to be meeting conservatives halfway by now drastically watering down the implications of the Swift Boat attackers and using the Swift Boat phrase in a loose, lazy, and imprecise manner. For the Beltway press, Swift Boat has simply become a catch-all phrase to describe coordinated, negative campaign attacks that try to take a candidate's perceived strength and turn it into a weakness.
News consumers are told that's what the Swift Boat Vets did to Kerry's Vietnam record, and that's what the International Association of Fire Fighters is trying to do with Giuliani's much-touted 9-11 resumé.
The problem with that analogy is that it completely ignores what set the Swift Boat Vets apart: They manufactured nearly every claim they made about Kerry. They lied about documents; they lied about eyewitnesses. And they lied about their partisan leanings and connections.
And they also played the press for fools. At every turn in 2004, military records proved the Swift Boat veterans to be fakes. At every turn, each new inconsistency proved the Swift Boat veterans to be charlatans. 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.
Now the press is airbrushing the episode again by suggesting Giuliani's substantive critics are just like the Swift Boat vets. In truth, as The Carpetbagger Report noted, "The comparison is ridiculous. The Swiftboat attackers were lying; the International Association of Fire Fighters aren't. It's really that simple."
Giuliani aides claim the first-responders are partisan and cannot be trusted to speak for their rank-and-file members. But as far as most of the specific allegations, the Giuliani camp is mostly arguing around the margins. For instance, firefighters claimed that eight years after FDNY radios failed during the response to the World Trade Center terrorist attack of 1993, the same ineffective radios failed again on the morning of September 11 and that the mayor, despite years of FDNY requests, did not do enough to fix the radio problem. Giuliani supporters concede there was a communication breakdown on September 11, but that a high-rise signal transmission system failure was to blame, not the radios. Either way, lots of firefighters inside the Twin Towers were not able to properly communicate with their commanders on the morning of September 11.
In other words the two sides are battling over spin and interpretation. There's just no way to liken that with the Swift Boat Vets and their wholesale manufacturing of dates, quotes, events, and documentation.
Yet here's how an MSNBC.com report from July 11, under the headline "Giuliani's 'swift boaters,' " tied the firefighters and the Swift Boat Vets together:
In the summer of 2004, John Kerry let a slowly-building media campaign against his Vietnam War experience explode into a debacle. From that campaign a new phrase entered the political lexicon -- "swift boating." Now it appears Republican presidential candidate, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, may have his own "swift boaters."
Set aside the erroneous conventional wisdom that Kerry's campaign did nothing to combat the Swift Boat allegations (it's simply not true), and note that MSNBC failed to point out the most glaring and obvious Swift Boat trait; that the Vets peddled lies. This has become something of a cardinal rule for journalists when referencing the group today: Do not spell out the fact that the Swift Boat Vets were lying. (Time magazine recently, and oh so gently, described the Swift Boat attacks of 2004 by suggesting Kerry's Vietnam record had simply been "turned against him.") Instead, it's preferable to paint the group more generically, as aggressive, partisan, but above all, successful.
The casual, inaccurate Swift Boat references were pervasive throughout the firefighter coverage. The New York Post reported that "some of Rudy Giuliani's fiercest city critics are set to launch "swift boat"-type strikes to inform voters around the nation about the former mayor's behavior before 9/11."
Note that "swift boat" appeared in quotes despite the fact nobody in the article was quoted as mentioning the phrase. The same was true with a report from the Beltway trade magazine The Hill. Here's the lede: "Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign moved quickly yesterday to blunt what it sees as a sensationalist Swift Boat-style attack by a firefighters' union."
Again, nowhere in the article did anybody ever mention the Swift Boat veterans or compare the firefighters' video with the Swift Boat's 2004 attack ads. And nobody called the firefighter's video "sensationalist." All that commentary all came courtesy of The Hill.
Meanwhile, a Josh Greenman column in the New York Daily News announced, "The 'swift boating' begins, as the firefighters union releases a video claiming Rudy botched emergency radios and Ground Zero cleanup."
Referencing the disgruntled firefighters, a Newsweek headline asked, "Rudy: 'Swift Boat-able' on 9/11?" Yet in making the comparison between the partisan Vietnam vets and the firefighters, Newsweek never acknowledged that the vets fabricated most of their allegations.
The lazy, inaccurate use of the Swift Boat tag actually predated the firefighters' video. In April, New York magazine insulted VoteVets.org, which includes a PAC and advocacy organization devoted to advancing the interests of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. An article labeled the organization "a left-leaning version of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth."
A June 22 MSNBC report compared Vote Hope, a newly launched 527 organization formed to promote the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), with the Swift Boat Vets. That, despite the fact Vote Hope had made no campaign advertisements at the time, nor had it lobbed any hardball allegations against any candidate.
Or go back and read this Slate article, from 2005, headlined, "Kerry Swift Boats Bush," and try not to laugh out loud at the premise behind the "Swift Boat" headline. Spoiler alert: It's because Kerry claimed President George Bush was in denial about Iraq. That was Kerry's alleged smear campaign.
The press says Swift Boat Vets = MoveOn.org
Even at the height of the Swift Boat attacks, media outlets seemed to go out of their way, via false comparisons, to gloss over the radical nature of the smear campaign. On August 19, 2004, The New York Times published an unsigned editorial critical of the Swift Boat attackers. But it was also quick to spread the blame to 527 independent groups that aired attacks ads. "One of the more prominent of these groups," the Times wrote, "the leftist Moveon.org, is running ads attacking President Bush's Air National Guard service."
Yep, the mighty, "liberal" New York Times editorial page compared the libelous, phony, and multi-million-dollar Swift Boat smear campaign with a single MoveOn.org ad that raised factually accurate questions about Bush's dubious National Guard service.
The editorial brought this sharp-edged response from a Times reader:
To the Editor:
It's both sad and infuriating that you equate the group MoveOn with the disreputable smear tactics of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
It's time that we stop pretending that both sides are ''equally responsible'' for the degraded state of our politics.
The Republicans have been engaging in personal destruction for years, which included an attempted coup of Bill Clinton's presidency. The reason groups like MoveOn exist at all is for defense against such tactics.
New York, Aug. 19, 2004
Precisely. There is absolutely no way that a factual comparison can be made between the Swift Boat Vets and MoveOn.org, yet the press loves to do that with its patented, a-pox-on-both-your-houses cop-out. ("Politics As Usual," read the Times' editorial headline.)
For instance, following the 2006 midterm elections, Andrew Sullivan, writing for Time, bemoaned the polarized state of today's political discourse, which he claimed, was abetted by the likes of Michael Moore, MoveOn.org, and the Swift Boat Vets -- i.e., an Academy Award-winning director, one of the largest progressive grassroots organization in America, and an ad hoc group of liars.
More recently, on April 12, 2007, the Associated Press, addressing campaign finance laws, reported that "[t]wo of the more prominent 527s that have tried to sway recent elections are the liberal group Moveon.org Voter Fund, which targets Republicans, and the conservative Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which bought ads against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004."
According to the AP, the Swift Boat Vets merely "bought ads against" a Democratic candidate. The fact that the ads were filled with lies was of no interest.
The New York Times adjusts its coverage
But back to the firefighters and how the press has dealt with them and the Swift Boat Vets. By way of comparison, let's examine how The New York Times first reported on the firefighters' attack video in July and how the Times first reported on the Swift Boat Vets' first attack ad in 2004.
The differences are subtle, but telling. In terms of placement and size, the articles were quite similar:
- "Video by Firefighters' Union Urges Opposition to Giuliani," July 12, 2007. The article appeared on Page 18 and was 778 words long.
- "Vietnam Veterans Buy Ads to Attack Kerry," August 5, 2004. The article appeared on Page 16 and was 864 words long.
The differences were found inside the articles. For instance, the firefighter piece, in the very first sentence, stressed that the anti-Giuliani video might not be accurate:
In a video that is by turns emotional, scathing and at times factually questionable, the nation's largest union of firefighters is appealing to its members across the country not to support the Republican presidential candidacy of former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. [Emphasis added.]
Two things. First, did you notice how it was the Times itself that made the assertion that the firefighter video might not be true, rather than the Times quoting a Giuliani aide making that claim? To me that's very unusual because the 2004 article about the first Swift Boat ad detailed what the allegations being made against the candidate were, and then quoted representatives from the candidate's camp who explained why they thought the allegations were false.
But with its firefighter coverage, the Times stepped in and immediately informed readers that the attack video was "factually questionable."
Second, and worse, the Times' firefighter article could not back up its own claim that the firefighter video was "factually questionable." The Times simply reported "some of the conclusions in the 13-minute video can be debated" and that "some of the video's assertions are at the very least subject to debate." But c'mon, isn't that true of every political attack video or ad? And if that's the best the Times could do, why did the article's lede stress that the video was "factually questionable." Plus, nowhere in the article did the Giuliani camp claim the video was factually inaccurate. The Times came to that conclusion on its own.
The other telltale difference between how the newspaper handled the unveiling of the Swift Boat ad, as compared to the firefighter video, was that in 2004 the Times included eight direct, and damning, quotes from the Kerry accuser ad, three of which appear in the first three paragraphs (i.e. "'When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry''). In its firefighter report though, the Times included one lonely accuser quote and it did not appear until the seventh paragraph.
The take-away from the two articles was quite clear: The Swift Boat veterans were making serious, damning allegations against Kerry, while the NYC firefighters' allegations against Giuliani might not be legit.
When it came to covering two sets the campaign accusers, the Times, like most of the press, got both stories exactly wrong.