River of No Return

A chronicle of the swiftboating of everything

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It’s been a rough year for the media industry. Almost weekly comes news of layoffs, mergers, layoffs from mergers, or newsroom turmoil engulfing a wide array of once-esteemed brands, from the now-under-investigation Newsweek to the New York Times, whose employees have been leaking their frustrations over the downward-trending direction of its opinion section. Once-ballyhooed digital upstarts are likewise feeling the pain inevitably attendant on heeding the counsel of fools’-gold-bearing advertisers and pivoting, ruinously, to video. And the Faustian bargains that Facebook engineers for news organizations are exposed daily as algorithmic traps, filled with dodgy fake news purveyors and system-gamers galore.

For the piece de resistance, there is the fulsome, fathomless mendacity of the Donald Trump presidency to contend with. The norm-destroying tendencies of that administration have landed with considerable weight upon the Fourth Estate, whose members are locked in battle over the White House’s brazen hostility to the truth.

Among other things, the Trump era has brought a definitive end to slow news days. Everything that could possibly happen is happening, all at once, leaving the press scrambling to determine which of each day’s toxic distractions belongs above the fold. For journalists not on the Trump beat, it’s hard to find a purchase in the now apparently bottomless newshole. No doubt this is a banner year for America’s lesser corrupters, skirting around the event horizon of Trump-branded brigandage. Trump-besotted editors and headline writers, meanwhile, can be seen perennially trying out novel approaches to the prime directive of shoehorning Trump into any kind of story for the sake of harvesting maximum clicks.

At the bottom of much of this Fourth-Estate derangement is a gnawing sense of rarely articulated industry-wide guilt over the press’s Trump-enabling record. This uneasy conscience betrays itself in several ways. Editors have issued directives on acquiring new warm bodies with new perspectives, though this has seldom led to any departures from the same old, out-of-touch polite centrist worldview. Numerous brands have undertaken costly safaris into the heartland, lingering just long enough to send them scurrying back gratefully to their privileged aeries. And, of course, there has been continual efforts to resolve the mystery of “what gave rise to Trump.”

All the candidate explanations share certain assumptions. Trump’s rise was sudden, unexpected, unpredictable. The press could not have seen it coming.

But perhaps the rise of Trump was not so unpredictable. Maybe it came about because of a gradual turning away, an abandonment of the civic space, a rot so gradual that it was easy for even the proud watchdogs of the polity to overlook.

The Blowback Moment

Let’s cast our minds back to the 2004 presidential campaign, conducted in the glow of cable news images from the second war in Iraq. As the primary season wound down, those images showed a hastily executed ground war quickly turning into a quagmire. At the end of March, grenade-wielding insurgents operating in Fallujah struck a convoy run by contract mercenaries from Blackwater—the private security franchise run by Betsy DeVos’s brother Erik Prince. Four of the civilian contractors killed in the attack had their burnt remains dragged from their vehicles, paraded through the streets, and hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River. The scenes played out as a humiliation in the media. And if American warmakers were losing their strategic footing by springtime, the hemorrhaging of their moral authority was even more acute and abrupt as the world learned in April of the widespread abuse and torture carried out by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison. And in Bush—one year out from his flight-suit strut under an obviously premature “Mission Accomplished” banner—the Democrats couldn’t have asked for a better opponent against whom to make their case. It would fall to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to make it.

Kerry, of course, was no perfect avatar of Iraq War opposition, coming to the fray with stubborn liabilities that would be hard to completely offset. There was, to begin with, the matter of the votes he’d cast in the Senate during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, which both granted his election opponent the authority to wage it and the means to carry it out. It was a 2003 vote against $87 billion worth of funding for the Iraq war effort that led to his infamous rhetorical entanglement, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” Vermont Governor Howard Dean dogged Kerry throughout the Democratic primary season for the latter’s seeming desire to have things both ways as both the grave enabler of the war and its most fervent critic after the fact.

It was a problem Kerry never truly resolved. In August of 2004, Kerry told reporters that, despite what he’d learned about the absence of a Saddam Hussein cache of WMDs, “I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a president to have.” A month later, he’d backtrack this garbled rationale in an interview on Good Morning America thusly: “Knowing there was no imminent threat to America, knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction, knowing there was no connection of Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda, I would not have gone to war. That’s plain and simple.”

Actually, it wasn’t. Nevertheless, by the time the battle royal between Kerry and Bush was joined, the Democratic challenger had arrived at a clear strategy of how to proceed. Building upon the momentous sense that the upcoming election was destined to serve as a national referendum on the follies in Iraq, Kerry positioned himself as a martial hero. His background provided genuine ennoblements: in Vietnam, Kerry had served on a Swift boat unit where he’d earned military honors for bravery. After Kerry returned home from the war, those honors served to enhance his moral standing as an outspoken critic of the war. Kerry joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, taking prominent part in that group’s “Winter Soldier” examination of U.S. war crimes. He testified before a U.S. Senate committee, urgently seeking to spur an end to the war with the question, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” The next day, Kerry joined an anti-war action in Washington, part of a five-day long demonstration culminating in a thousand-strong throng of veterans who threw their medals over a fence that had been constructed at the U.S. Capitol.

Kerry’s campaign made much use of this history. What the current situation in Iraq called for, his campaign argued, was a leader who could restore an ethos of humility, honor, and national service to a republic under siege from George W. Bush’s delusional and heedlessly destructive neocons. Kerry’s humble assignment in Vietnam would help to cut against the idea that he had become out of touch after inheriting and marrying into great wealth. His so-called band of brothers—the men who had served by his side—would take his side again on the campaign trail as a testament to Kerry’s moral leadership.

Martial Arts

It’s true that the Kerry playbook aimed to rebrand many of the national security themes that Bush’s re-election team was hammering home to continue exploiting the climate of grievance and fear that had been their calling card since the September 11 terror attacks. But the tactic was anything but an assured slam dunk, thanks to Kerry’s aforementioned feckless record in supporting, and then disowning, the Iraq invasion himself. A skeptical media helped ensure that the Democratic nominee’s clumsy and ill-considered Iraq votes could not be tossed aside as easily as Kerry’s military medals had been. Kerry never really managed to square the circle on the Iraq war—while he broadly characterized it as a strategic disaster and a moral atrocity, the best he could offer voters on the stump was an idea that he could somehow manage that ongoing error back into some semblance of success better than the man who had disastrously captained the initial war effort.

No doubt this is a banner year for America’s lesser corrupters, skirting around the event horizon of Trump-branded brigandage.

But as any consultant or press surrogate will tell you, presidential campaigns are in part referendums of character—or at least had been prior to Trump’s ascension. So even in spite of Kerry’s self-inflicted weaknesses as an antiwar candidate, the patrician senator was still well positioned to provoke a deadly contrast between two candidates. After all, without the Iraq war as a defining issue, the 2004 presidential election would likely have been just another battle between two members of America’s landed gentry. Kerry, given the inside track to be the representative of principled opposition to the war, played up his sacrifices, his honorable actions, and his fraternal mien around military veterans. From this secure ground, it should have been no great trick to portray Bush as a rich wastrel who had absconded from similar duty (going missing for long stretches of his National Guard deployment in Texas) and then run a new generation of soldiers into hopeless overseas entanglements through his sheer and painfully self-evident lack of competence.

It seems pretty clear that the forces supporting President Bush knew all too well such a comparison could prove to be fatal. That’s because, rather than attack Kerry at the ripest points of contradiction that were already on offer, they opted instead to libel him.

The Drunken Boat

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth announced themselves with a letter dated May 4, 2004, less than two months after Kerry had locked up enough primary votes to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and three days after U.S. forces pulled out of Fallujah, leaving it in the care of a CIA-backed Sunni security force. At this point, it was starting to become clear that opposition to the U.S. occupation in Iraq was not simply a rearguard action on the part of the erstwhile loyalists of the Hussein regime; it was a mass insurgency led by those whose hearts and minds the United States was failing to win. (Thomas Ricks, in his book Fiasco, would record a wan assessment of the first battle of Fallujah from a Marine officer named Jonathan Keilar: “The Battle of Fallujah was not a defeat, but we cannot afford many more victories like it.”)

It was a time of bad news from Iraq and the downward-trending opinion polls on Bush and the war, and the Swift Boaters stepped forward with the first great fake news initiative of the new American century. Their letter painted Kerry as a thoroughgoing fraud. Insisting that many of the signatories were “men who served directly with [Kerry] during [his] four month tour,” the signers accused Kerry of “grossly and knowingly” distorting the “conduct” of his fellow soldiers, hiding “material facts as to [his] own conduct” during the war, and acting “without regard for the danger [his] actions caused [the signatories].”

Library of Congress / New-York Tribune, December 5, 1909

The letter continued:

We believe you continue this conduct today, albeit by changing from an anti-war to a “war hero” status. You now seek to clad yourself in the very medals that you disdainfully threw away in the early years of your political career. In the process, we believe you continue a deception as to your own conduct through such tactics as the disclosure of only carefully screened portions of your military records. Both then and now, we have concluded that you have deceived the public, and in the process have betrayed honorable men, to further your personal political goals.

“Senator Kerry, we were there,” they wrote, reaching a crescendo. “We know the truth.”

But were they, and did they? Of the more than 250 people whose names were affixed to the letter, only one—Steven Gardner—had spent time as a member of Kerry’s Swift boat crew. In one of the group’s television advertisements, Gardner claimed to have “spent more time on [Kerry’s] boat than any other crew member” and for good measure contended that Kerry had lied about being on a “secret mission” in Cambodia during the Christmas of 1968. But records showed that Gardner had only spent a month and a half with Kerry, less than many other soldiers. Furthermore, Kerry had never characterized his excursion in Cambodia as a “secret mission,” and while Kerry later admitted the actual trip across the border occurred within the first few months of 1969, his presence near the border of Cambodia that Christmas season was backed up by both military reports as well as in Douglas Brinkley’s 2004 book on Kerry’s wartime record, Tour of Duty.

Unfit to Remember

It turned out that the Swift Boat letter was full of such rank distortions and untruths. Despite the signers’ righteous “we were there” claims, most simply were not. Former Swift Boat partisan Alfred French, for instance, later admitted that he had no firsthand knowledge of events that he’d claimed to have witnessed in a sworn affidavit. And some of the Swift Boaters who had been Kerry’s contemporaries were not at all ill-disposed toward him. Grant Hibbard, a division commander who’d signed the letter, was the author of positive evaluations of Kerry. Another signatory, George Elliot, had submitted Kerry for a Bronze Star.

Of the more than 250 people whose names were affixed to the letter, only one—Steven Gardner—had spent time as a member of Kerry’s Swift Boat crew.

John O’Neill, a SBVT founder who coauthored the group’s book-length campaign-season broadside, Unfit for Command, with Jerome Corsi, drew criticism from several interview subjects who contended that he’d distorted their reminiscences into stump-style attacks on Kerry’s character and pointedly edited out their favorable accounts of Kerry’s wartime service. Such omissions were especially telling, they argued, since O’Neill had no firsthand experience with Kerry in Vietnam and had in fact only served on a Swift boat after Kerry had finished his tour of duty.

Throughout it all, those among Kerry’s “band of brothers” defended him against the charges, joined in that cause by Kerry’s Senate colleague and fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain, who referred to the SBVT’s attacks as “dishonest and dishonorable.” (Four years later, he’d end up welcoming their donations to his own presidential campaign.) The Associated Press reported that even some of the men Kerry had fought against in Vietnam were perplexed by the accusations. (“I think it’s just American politics,” one former Viet Cong fighter archly and accurately noted.)

Setting the Record Half-Straight

There were plenty of reporters who did not fall for the Swift Boat con. The New York Times’ Kate Zernike and Jim Rutenberg reported rather forthrightly that the group had a “web of connections to the Bush family, high-profile Texas political figures, and President Bush’s chief political aide, Karl Rove.” This clutch of campaign fixers included a trustee for the foundation of President George H.W. Bush’s presidential library, a Texas flack who’d assisted the elder Bush in his preparations for his vice-presidential debate, and one member of the ad team that had famously mocked a helmet-wearing Michael Dukakis in a devastating attack ad from 1988.

More important, Zernike and Rutenberg reported that “on close examination, the accounts of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth prove to be riddled with inconsistencies.” “In many cases,” they added, “material offered as proof by these veterans is undercut by official Navy records and the men’s own statements.” The editorial board of the Los Angeles Times followed suit, writing, “Not limited by the conventions of our colleagues in the newsroom, we can say it outright: These charges against John Kerry are false.”

But even while the Swift Boaters were erratic avatars of loyal American soldiering, they proved remarkably unshaken by the various media challenges to their credibility. No matter how effectively their claims were rebutted, they plowed ahead. As the 2004 campaign built to its climax, the Swift Boat 527 nonprofit political action committee had released a string of national advertisements, each as false as the last. Thanks to the various Bush consiglieres behind their efforts, they could pretty much spend donor cash at will. What’s more, the group’s comparatively early emergence in the campaign helped to keep the whiff of desperation away—the Swift Boaters couldn’t be accused of being a johnny-come-lately retinue of cranks attempting to force an implausible October Surprise on the war-weary electorate. Their persistence at the vanguard of the anti-Kerry attack effort also made for many a pleasing, process-driven thumbsucker in the political press. How effective are the ads? We have polling! How to assess the Kerry campaign’s response? Kerry’s been unable to make the story go away! What is it about these Swift Boat Veterans For Truth that makes them such a force in our politics?

Waltz of the Ratfuckers

The sorry aftermath of the Swift Boat sliming crusade should have been a moment of moral reckoning for the American political press. Perhaps the central lesson of that reckoning should have been: endlessly analyzing the efficacy of liars only ends up furthering the work of those liars. Despite assurances from reporters and editorial pages that campaign-engineered slanders are “glaringly false,” the incessant pressure arising from coverage that is always at least tacitly predicated on the notion that the lies in question could be true leads to to some insider variant of “this claim might end up sticking if Kerry’s not careful.” The ratfuckers get a map to follow, courtesy of the referees. Eventually, the pundits begin to marvel at the jujitsu—look at the deft flip of the script! Which one of these guys is the hero and which is the heel?

With the joint pressure of sheer repetition and the vacuous major-media hermeneutic of both-sides-ism, equivocation slowly but ineluctably begins to take root. In August, as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times were blasting the Swift Boat Veterans, the Washington Post characterized the accusations made by the Swift Boaters as merely “incomplete”—a failure to disprove Kerry’s account of his own service. Post reporter Michael Dobbs’s mealy-mouthed assessment of the Swift Boaters’ concerted debauchery of historical truth ran thus:

An investigation by the Washington Post into what happened that day suggests that both sides have withheld information from the public record and provided an incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate, picture of what took place. But although Kerry’s accusers have succeeded in raising doubts about his war record, they have failed to come up with sufficient evidence to prove him a liar.

Dobbs would immediately go on to characterize both Douglas Brinkley’s Tour of Duty and the Swift Boat Vets’ book Unfit for Command as equally worthy enterprises that “formed the basis for public discussion.” Imagine treating, say, George Fitzhugh’s unhinged proslavery tract Cannibals All! alongside Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the same noncommital, purse-lipped deference.

Unduly Noted

Over at the Mark Halperin-led The Note—ABC News’s genre-defining tip sheet of Beltway nerve stimulation—the savvy insider assessment of the matter was rendered in melodramatic fashion, as with major sporting events:

The big political moment of the day comes when the president speaks at a press availability this morning in Crawford, gets the expected Swift Boat question, and decides in both tone and substance how to answer.

So, while we wait to see what those remarks do for the velocity and vector direction of all this, let’s review the bidding on the story both campaigns claim (with some credibility) that they would like to see go away, and yet are powerless—so far—to stop.

The entire claim that “both campaigns” wanted to see the Swift Boaters “go away” was an assertion without evidence, as was the notion that no one had the power to stop them. (Indeed, the callow myth of the Republican establishment’s supposed distaste for the excesses of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s crusade would be promptly demolished before prime-time network cameras at the Republican National Convention in New York. One prominent delegate gleefully handed out Band-Aids to attendees so they could mock Kerry’s Purple Heart, which the Swift Boaters also insinuated, without credible proof of any kind, had been unearned.) For The Note, the entire existence of this group of mendacious blackguards was just a crazy accident.

And indeed, in the spasmodically arranged bullet points that followed, the Notesters’ ditzy attempt at sorting these liars into an ordinary universe continued apace.

—This blind quote in the New York Times from a Democrat “close” to the Kerry campaign is very key: “When you’re basically running on your biography and there are ongoing attacks that are undermining the credibility of your biography, you have a really big problem.”

—There are smart Democrats who think this is all horrible for Kerry; there are ones who think an eventual backlash against the president and a focus on Kerry’s war record will be good in the end. And there are smart Republicans on both analytical sides as well.

—There is no evidence that the Bush campaign is orchestrating the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and the known ties between them are significantly less close than between John Kerry’s campaign and the 527s supporting him. [Contra the well-documented facts surfaced by the New York Times.]

—The traditional media has shown no capacity to resist the story—for a week and counting this stuff has been the dominant narrative of the presidential race.

The shiny ball! It shines! The Note was simply overcome with an onrush of observations, pivoting right from savaging the Bush campaign for its alleged “unwillingness” to “directly answer questions” about the Swift Boat Veterans’ charges (which should “shame and embarrass the whole nation”) to giddily exclaiming that any shift in the “terrain” that caused the “story [to] be kept alive” would limit Kerry’s chance of winning “the ‘truth’ war.” Additionally, The Note opined that a “new Bush ad going after John Kerry on taxes is almost certainly more likely to work, now that Kerry’s ‘trouble with the truth’ reputation has been stoked by the Swift Boaters.” It’s pretty hard to hold someone to account for shaming the nation when you’re also outlining the electoral advantages that such perfidiousness offers.

Ultimately, like so many others, The Note placed the responsibility for ensuring that the truth prevailed on the Kerry campaign itself. “If John Kerry can’t build a campaign organization that can de-fang 250 guys spending a million bucks,” they wrote, “how good a president could he possibly be?” (Fourteen years on, this seems a rather quaint sentiment.)

What, We Worry?

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth really had to be thrilled with this everything-and-nothing-all-at-once assessment of their works. More important, the group’s spokesmen had made an important discovery: while their ratfuckery had taken the power of donor money to a new level, and sped the full integration of the conservative movement’s boodle-bundlers with the operational infrastructure of the GOP establishment, the real breakthrough came via their diehard skill in exploiting the media’s many moral and analytical weaknesses.

What should have simply been dismissed as a set of bald-faced lies and sneering slanders instead became a “controversy.”

What should have simply been dismissed as a set of bald-faced lies and sneering slanders instead became a “controversy.” And once the Swift Boaters successfully made that conceptual leap, their ginned-up battery of slanders no longer really became the media’s problem to solve—it became Kerry’s.

The members of the political press could still offer their judgment, but they’d retired to the cheap seats, cheerfully taking on the role of spectators in a grand game. What really mattered in the end was not whether there was an objective truth but whether the lie could attain enough currency to have an interesting gravitational pull on voter perceptions. Of course, such perceptions were largely imputed to the electorate by the political journalists themselves, rather than arising as the result of any serious longitudinal study of American attitudes toward military leadership as it figured into presidential balloting.

When all the shouting ceased and the dust had settled, Kerry’s many earnest acolytes were left to sulk over a slander that lingered too long in the media’s consciousness and to marvel at the sad fate of a post-convention bounce gone too soon. Meanwhile, their distinctly other-than-earnest counterparts atop the GOP power elite had to be equally ecstatic over their own role in restoring the party’s Fallujah-and-Abu-Ghraib-battered image as the tried-and-true guardians of the homeland’s security. Furrow-browed pundits wondered aloud whether, in the end, Kerry had done enough to beat back the lies that they’d long stopped acknowledging as such. And the grim spiral in Iraq continued ever downward into untold civilian deaths, insurgent attacks, renditions of “enemy combatants,” and a steady toll of battlefield fatalities.

Of course, Kerry’s failure had many fathers—as many recent electoral collapses at the presidential level do. Bush was an incumbent running with what looked to be a healthy economy. And, as the Washington Post’s Jonathan Bernstein noted, “There’s a major bias working here in that everything that winners do is remembered as contributing to the win, and everything losers do is remembered as contributing to the defeat.”

Air, Damned Spots!

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth couldn’t take full credit for beating Kerry. But they could congratulate themselves for scoring a major political victory and for permanently altering the rules of engagement for a political media deeply averse to calling truth and lies by their names. The clear takeaway from the Swift Boaters’ truth-mangling campaign remains the core cognitive and moral distemper at the root of our political press today—namely, the idea that the perceptions created by political actors matter more than the substantive facts that can be truthfully reported. And this has allowed the Swift Boaters’ libelous script to repeat itself again and again over the past grim fourteen years of our cultural and civic decline.

The recent vintages are all too familiar. The systematic campaign of othering President Barack Obama, better known as Birtherism, survived through his entire presidency, with the media, though occasionally savaging the more batshit conspiracy theorists, entertaining, with nary a word of discouragement, members of the Republican establishment, who streamed from green rooms onto studio sets to slyly offer that they “took the president at his word” that he was born in America. That this epic failure of moral nerve would eventually result in the elevation of Birther Poster Boy Donald Trump into the presidency as Obama’s successor should stand for future historians as an undying indictment of the American punditizing-cum-political-reporting caste.

The GOP establishment also merrily touted fabulist mountebank Ed Klein’s Blood Feud straight into the heart of 2016 campaign discourse—even though the book was nothing more than a funhouse-mirror account of the rivalry between the Clintons and Obamas that was so unbelievable that even Rush Limbaugh urged his listeners to keep their disbelief unsuspended. (“Some of the quotes strike me as odd, in the sense that I don’t know people who speak this way,” said the talk radio host.) When the tricksy tome successfully displaced Clinton’s own campaign-ready memoir Hard Choices on the bestseller list, the New York Times’ Amy Chozick and Alexandra Alter could only offer readers a “them’s the breaks” shrug as a shameless work of flim-flammery all but nullified a sincere attempt to reach readers:

The suspenseful page-turner paints a Shakespearean (if unbelievable) portrait of power, lust and clashes between and within the two first families. In one passage, Mr. Clinton says: “I hate that man Obama more than any man I’ve ever met, more than any man who ever lived.” In another, Michelle Obama refers to Mrs. Clinton as “Hildebeest.” Other stretches of Mr. Klein’s writing are devoted to marital tensions. Mr. Klein quotes an anonymous friend of Mr. Obama as saying: “Barack gets so fed up with her behavior that he actually encourages Michelle to take separate planes when they go on vacation, so he doesn’t have to fly with her.”

And now, let’s return to your regularly scheduled helping of private-servers and email intrigue because clearly the American people are riveted with concern over operational security.

And we mustn’t forget James O’Keefe and his Project Veritas crew, one of the more enterprising heirs to the Swift Boat throne. Dark money-funded and far more inventive in their prevarications than the Swift Boaters—who still felt the need to maintain a pretense of respectability—O’Keefe has made the paranoid style in American politics his palette as a postmodern cinematic fabulist. It’s true that of late, O’Keefe’s sting attempts have fallen flat, but his recent slump has more to do with his decision to target the one patch of territory on the civic landscape that journalists will defend with their most fearsome efforts—themselves.

The shiny ball! It shines!

So while it’s genuinely satisfying—truly, it is!—to watch the staff of the Washington Post turn the tables on O’Keefe’s stooges, remember the scorecard. The shameless slander of Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod paid for a cornerstone of the Breitbartian media empire’s foundation. And ACORN, an organization that strove to empower the most downtrodden Americans in their political lives, is dead at the hands of a minstrel-pimp who at best uncovered a workplace error that any ordinary human resources department could have sorted through with minimal fuss. (Republican lawmakers have regularly paid tribute to O’Keefe by repeatedly inserting language into budget bills that would prevent federal money from going to this long-dead organization.)

In our present advanced state of journalistic incoherence, O’Keefe’s antics look quaint. Consider what is in many ways the most enduring institutional legacy of the Swift Boaters’ ratfucking campaign. During that same rancid 2004 campaign cycle, an opportunistic, right-leaning broadcast conglomerate—whose sixty-two stations controlled 24 percent of the broadcast market at the time, according to the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi—briefly got in on the Kerry character-assassination racket as well. The nimble programmers at this local-news empire set out to lend further legitimacy to the Swift Boat slander by broadcasting the anti-Kerry documentary Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal. (As Farhi noted, the makers of the documentary weren’t in the formal orbit of the Swift Boaters, but there was at least one P.O.W., Paul Galanti, from the documentary who also made an appearance in the Swift Boat Vets’ ad.)

The conglomerate in question was the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which thanks to a recent binge of mergers and acquisitions now comprises approximately two hundred stations across the nation. As of April 2018, Seattle Times reporter Mike Rosenberg noted that 64 percent of the jobs available at journalismjobs.com were for Sinclair properties. Those lucky enough to land such gigs might find themselves servicing the ends of right-wing propagandists who regularly force their affiliates to read pro-Trump editorial scripts into the evening news broadcasts.

With Both Fear and Favor

The truth is, we may never really reach the apotheosis of Swift Boatery, though as it stands, the current peak has to be President Trump claiming to want to re-investigate the matter of his Access Hollywood tape—the contents of which he’d long since apologized for—telling a Republican senator, “We don’t think that was my voice.” In the New York Times coverage of the story, two of the paper of record’s top political reporters, Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin, gave Trump confidant and Mar-a-Lago habitue Christopher Ruddy the last word:

“I’m not a presidential historian, but I think many other presidents have written and shaped their own myths,” said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media, who spent part of Thanksgiving weekend with Mr. Trump at the president’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.

“Look at what happened with John Kennedy,” Mr. Ruddy added. “If you read Theodore White’s books on it, he was given a story line about Camelot. I don’t think President Trump has gone that far—he’s not describing this as Camelot.”

Sure, whatever; at this point, why not?

The truth is, we may never really reach the apotheosis of Swift Boatery.

Inside the Beltway, the scribblers who throng our gilded capital city are likely to define “swiftboating” merely as a shorthand for “an underhanded attack on a candidate’s biography.” That’s how, for instance, Democrats’ 2012 attacks on Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital legacy have managed to get categorized. But as the record shows, this patois shorthand is an incomplete, if not inaccurate, definition of the actual truth-deranging dynamics at play in the Swift Boat legacy. True swiftboating involves the cynical weaponization of media’s own lockstep both-sidesist coverage in order to create a species of political fabulism that’s too exciting—too eyeball-baiting—to properly kill off. The resulting discursive squalor—a welter of confusion in which objective fact competes against galaxy-brained and perennially unalterable “perceptions” for equal footing—is not something that any honest media practitioner can defend as a best practice. For the testimony of a less-than-honest practitioner, see here:

My job is to assess not the rightness of each argument but to deal in the real world of campaign politics in which perception often (if not always) trumps reality. I deal in the world as voters believe it is, not as I (or anyone else) thinks it should be.

That’s Chris Cillizza, then of the Washington Post, explaining to the Posts readership why it’s proper to dismiss the work of his newspaper’s own dogged factcheckers—and, indeed, downgrade them to second-class status in the realm of political media—because “the real world” is really a mystical realm of campaign-fuelled “perceptions,” and this is where serious political scribes ply their trade. Cillizza continues:

Now, I can already hear people saying some version of this: “It’s your job in the media to INFORM people. To tell them what’s right and what’s wrong. To cut through the clutter.” Absolutely true. . . . But, I would say to those critics: You overestimate the media’s ability to (a) cut through the clutter or (b) change peoples’ minds about what’s true and what’s not.

Cillizza would go further:

My job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of the New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.

Oh, wait, forgive me. That was Judith Miller, who came in for some severe professional reprimanding for her porous, endlessly impressionable reporting on the non-existent imminent threat of Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenal just as the Swift Boaters were taking center stage in the 2004 cycle. The fallout from Miller’s exposure was just as predictably nugatory; she went on to land a Fox News pundit contract while her comrades in threat confabulation, Jeffrey Goldberg and Stephen Hayes, have landed plum editor-in-chief sinecures at The Atlantic and the Weekly Standard, respectively. Just as the political lords of perception management were discovering the costs and rewards of coordinated campaigns of public lying, their enabling Fourth Estate mouthpieces abandoned any rudimentary understanding of simple accountability to one’s readership.

Adoring a Vacuum

And on this glum note, we come full circle—firmly establishing the idea that too many in the media have abandoned their civic purpose, and do not look to reclaim that purpose any time soon. It’s really no wonder that when our Hollywood Oscar-mongers look for tales of crusading journalists to lionize in the spirit of their own self-aggrandizement, they are constantly, ceaselessly borne back into the past. How, indeed, will Cillizza’s era be remembered? First as tragedy, then as farce. (Here’s but one likely augur of this legacy in the making: Jerome Corsi, co-author of Unfit for Command, now works as an unhinged correspondent for InfoWars, and is currently flogging a bestselling work of Oval Office-branded paranoia called, yes, Killing the Deep State: The Fight to Save President Trump.)

After Trump’s election, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer offered a grim assessment of what lay in store:

During the 2016 presidential campaign, reporters marveled at the ability of Donald Trump and his surrogates to create an alternate reality in which statements made by the candidate had not been made at all—from his view that global warming is a hoax, to his nonexistent opposition to the Iraq War, to his refusal to say he would concede in the event of a loss, to his remarks about his relationship to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. These are people who could argue that the sky is green without a blink. They were able to win a presidential election while doing so. Now they will have the entire apparatus of the federal government to bolster their lies, and the mainstream press is woefully unprepared to cover them.

There has, of course, been one saving grace—Trump’s own woeful lack of preparation to govern, which has largely, but by no means completely, resulted in an unending series of stepped-upon rakes and self-inflicted sabotage. Take your comfort, then, where you can. Next time, we may not be this lucky.

Jason Linkins is a political columnist who served as the editor of Eat The Press at the Huffington Post.

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 October 2

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