With Barack Obama and John McCain each trying portray the other as an out-of-touch, wealthy elitist, there's one thing missing from media coverage of the skirmish: an assessment of what the two candidates' policy positions say about how well they understand and care about the needs of average Americans.
It sure felt like déjà vu all over again, didn't it?
No election watcher could forget the summer of 2004, when Fox News repeatedly invited Swift Boat author John O'Neill onto cable prime time and allowed him to air his scurrilous allegations about Sen. John Kerry's Vietnam War record. Even before the partisan Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group unveiled its infamous television ads, it was on Fox News where the controversy was birthed. It was Fox News that allowed O'Neill a mostly unobstructed platform on August 10, 17, 19, and 24, 2004, to libel Kerry and to gin up a controversy that eventually swamped the Democratic candidate for most of that crucial summer month.
Then, almost exactly four years later to the dates (on July 31, August 3, 12, and 14), Fox News presented its White House campaign sequel. It welcomed O'Neill's Swift Boat writing partner, Jerome Corsi, to publicize his new attack book, The Obama Nation. Laying out his fever-swamp allegations about Obama's drug use and his supposed connections to Islam, Corsi enjoyed the type of national exposure, courtesy of Fox News, that every author craves.
It was an audience that helped propel The Obama Nation to No. 1 on the bestsellers list, which then ignited wide-scale mainstream coverage for Corsi and his book.
In other words, everything was going according to plan. The sequel had been set up -- had been marketed -- just like the Swift Boat predecessor, and now all conservatives had to do was sit back and watch the fun, as the Obama campaign became engulfed in Corsi-led controversy.
It hasn't worked that way. The Obama Nation's allegations, as slight and flimsy as they are, have taken a back seat to questions about Corsi's own credibility. In fact, journalists have likely spent more time dissecting the errors in Obama Nation and highlighting Corsi's controversial path, including the hateful, bigoted items he used to post in online forums, than they have focusing on the allegations Corsi wanted to broadcast.
As the conservative National Review Online noted with frustration, "The media narrative thus becomes 'Corsi refuted' rather than 'Obama embattled.' "
Add in the fact that some conservatives have stepped forward to publically denounce Corsi and his brand of slime, beseeching the movement to divorce itself from Corsi's unsubstantiated attacks, and suddenly the sequel is in real distress.
Oh sure, it's selling. (Thanks in part to bulk sales, a right-wing marketing staple.) But in terms of affecting the race, in terms of gumming up the works for the Obama campaign, the book has so far been a bust.
What happened? How did a sure-fire follow-up hit turn into such a trouble-plagued production? And why isn't Fox News' Swift Boat formula working?
Simple. Both Corsi and the Fox News team are living in the past and failed to realize how dramatically the media landscape has shifted since the shady Swift Boat accusers were able to deftly use the media to spread their lies.
First and foremost, the progressive movement has spent the last four years bulking up its infrastructure, and specifically readying itself to respond to media-driven attacks from the right; the way Media Matters for America immediately blanketed The Obama Nation and documented its egregious errors (often floated on Fox News) and also raised doubts about the author's veracity and integrity. And thanks to the larger Netroots community, Corsi hasn't had any breathing room to spread his misinformation.
But there were also key marketplace changes within the cable news industry that affected the Corsi coverage, I think. Because remember that in 2004, Fox News drove the Swift Boat saga; it was practically a co-sponsor of the anti-Kerry crusade, devoting endless hours to promoting the Vietnam-era allegations. By sheer force of repetition, Fox News, then the dominant player in cable news, forced its competitors to not only acknowledge the Swift Boat story, but to go all in as well. And soon all the cable news outlets were treating the Swift Boat saga with Fox News-like breathlessness. (CNN aired nearly 300 segments referencing the topic.)
And just like Fox, they weren't asking the tough questions. Instead, they gave the Swift Boat accusers the same free ride that Fox News did. They became media enablers, too.
Not this time around. With Fox News no longer the dominant cable news king -- and with Fox News no longer driving the campaign narratives -- its competitors opted for a much different approach to covering Corsi. And I think the coverage from the competitors sent a subtle, yet simple, message: We no longer take our cues from Fox News' lead, because they no longer dictate campaign coverage. Instead, we're going to exult in our role as a counterbalance, as a fact-checker, to the Fox News-produced Corsi attack campaign. In fact, we're gonna help pull the curtain back on Corsi.
Just look at how MSNBC anchor Contessa Brewer greeted Corsi, as he ventured for the first time beyond the friendly TV confines of Rupert World:
BREWER: You say it's a comprehensive look, and yet there are already online bloggers that are going through this book page by page and picking apart what they see as factual errors. ... If they're going through, and they're finding all of these factual errors in your book, why should we give you the credibility?
CNN's Campbell Brown introduced a prime-time report by announcing, "Obama Nation is riddled with pretty much every unsubstantiated rumor you ever heard about Obama."
And on Larry King Live, Corsi was forced to face off against Media Matters Senior Fellow Paul Waldman, who refused to let the author spread his misinformation uncontested.
All the above represented precisely what the press, and most especially the cable outfits, should have done -- but mostly refused to do -- in 2004.
They refused to allow articulate, independent critics onto the national stage to debunk the patently false Swift Boat charges. Instead, the press most often treated the Swift Boat story as a political one, which meant amplifying the partisan charges and then going to the Kerry campaign for a quote, or inviting a Kerry campaign surrogate on the air to debate a Swift Boat liar.
Rather than forcefully labeling the Swift Boat attacks a charade and IDing the attackers as pranksters, and instead of holding the Swift Boat accusers accountable, the press played dumb and abandoned its traditional campaign role.
As Greg Mitchell at Editor & Publisher noted, "The mainstream press gave the charges -- carried in ads, in books and articles, and in major TV appearances -- a free ride for a spell, then a respectful airing mixed with critique, before in many cases finally attempting to shoot them down as overwhelmingly exaggerated or false."
In the infamous words of former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie, upon being pressed about the paper's Swift Boat coverage in August 2004: "We are not judging the credibility of Kerry or the [Swift Boat] Veterans, we just print the facts."
Talk about abdicating your role as journalists. During the Swift Boat hoax, Downie and his team at the Post essentially walked off the field, refusing to officiate the smear campaign. Wasn't judging the credibility of the previously unknown Swift Boat accusers precisely what the Post and the rest of the press should have been doing in August 2004?
Thankfully, that kind of cowardice has been replaced by actual journalism when dealing with the Corsi sequel. And on TV, I'd suggest that about-face has been fueled by Fox News' fall from ratings grace, as its competitors, flush with confidence, realize they no longer have to follow.
Instead, they can lead.
Of course, the fact that Corsi won't admit or correct obvious errors in his book has only emboldened the press to pose tough questions. His often loopy logic has also not helped him, like suggesting we cannot believe Obama when he said he stopped taking drugs in college because, according to the author, "self-reporting, by people who have used drugs, as to when they stopped is inherently unreliable."
When Corsi stumbled down that twisted path on CNN's Larry King Live last week, Media Matters' Waldman was waiting to pounce:
WALDMAN: You put up on right-wing websites a whole series of bigoted and hateful posts in 2002 and 2003 that you later had to admit to when you got found out -- all kinds of really vile, malicious stuff.
CORSI: OK. If you --
WALDMAN: Now, you say that you've stopped that. You say that you've stopped that and you don't put up those kinds of vile, bigoted, malicious, hateful posts on right-wing websites. But all we have is your word. I mean, do -- can we really trust you? People who do that kind of thing, well, you know, they're not really very trustworthy.
CORSI: We have --
WALDMAN: So can we trust you? Are you still doing that?
CORSI: You have more than my word. You've got the record of everything I've written since then.
WALDMAN: Can you prove that you're not doing it anonymously? Can you prove it?
I'm hard-pressed to recall the last time I saw an author get so thoroughly discredited on national television the way Corsi was at the hands of Waldman. (The encounter simply confirmed why conservatives often refuse to go head-to-head with reps from Media Matters in public settings.)
That undressing proved infectious within the mainstream media, as it began to spell out, fairly and accurately, what Corsi and his book were about. The Associated Press' Nedra Pickler reported, "Corsi suggests, without a shred of proof, that Obama may be using drugs today. Obama has acknowledged using marijuana and cocaine as a teenager but says he quit when he went to college and hasn't used drugs since."
The New York Times' political blog, The Caucus, set aside space to detail Corsi's touting of radical 9-11 theories that suggest explosives detonated inside the Twin Towers were also responsible for the destruction, not just the terrorist-piloted jumbo jets. And Politico noted how Corsi had "left a trail of wild theories, vitriol and dogma that have called into question his credibility."
Is it some sort of collective penance journalists are serving for the media's Swift Boat failures of 2004? Who knows? But it's exactly what journalists ought to be doing when mischief-makers like Corsi climb onto the national stage (ladder, courtesy of Simon & Schuster), and start making unsubstantiated charges about presidential contenders.
Conservatives now whine about the press taking sides, that it's teaming up on Corsi. In fact, the press is simply doing exactly what it should have done in 2004, and that's vet the accuser. Period.
The game has changed. But somebody forgot to tell Corsi and his friends at Fox News.