The New York Times rewrites its Swift Boat history

It was painful enough in 2004 to watch the intimidated press corps stand down while the GOP rolled out its smear campaign. But to watch the press four years later try to pretend it shot down the smears in real time is infuriating.

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth remain hovering like unwanted guests over the current campaign cycle.

Sen. John McCain, who four years ago criticized the Swift Boat smears, is now accepting their donations. And this week, he even dragged one of the Swift Boat Vets, Bud Day, out into public view to, of all things, condemn what the vet claimed were political attacks on McCain's Vietnam War record.

The notorious group also remains a hot topic because the same publisher of the anti-Kerry Swift Boat book, Regnery Publishing, is planning to release an August book on Sen. Barack Obama called, The Case Against Barack Obama. The book's roll-out will be pushed by the same well-connected conservative public relations firm, Creative Response Concepts, that was behind the Swift Boat blitz. Conservatives hope to catch lightning in a bottle again and derail the Democratic nominee with the release of this sensational book, but in order to disrupt Obama, the publisher will have to do more than lob all sorts of wild accusations. It will have to enlist the help of the Beltway media.

Because what elevated the outlandish Swift Boat allegations that Sen. John Kerry had lied about his war injuries in Vietnam, and what gave the allegations legitimacy and legs, was the fact that the mainstream press not only showered the Swift Boat attacks with voluminous coverage (CNN aired nearly 300 segments on the topic), but that the press completely failed, in a timely fashion, to ferret out the lies the Swift Boat Vets were peddling as part of their elaborate campaign season hoax.

That's the sad truth. And that's why a line from a recent New York Times report caught my attention. The article was on how billionaire Swift Boat backer T. Boone Pickens was basically welching on the reported wager he'd made to give $1 million to anybody who could disprove the Swift Boat Vets' claims against Kerry. (A group of Kerry-backing veterans took Pickens up on his challenge; he promptly changed the ground rules of the wager and refused to pay.

But the Times piece suggested that, regardless of Pickens' refusal to pay up, it was common knowledge back in 2004 that many of the Swift Boat accusations were hollow and that the accusers were often at odds with the facts and themselves.

“Of course, none of this is really new,” the Times reported. “Extensive media accounts undermined the Swift Boat charges in 2004, pointing out that some of the Swift Boat critics had written statements during Vietnam lauding Mr. Kerry for extraordinary bravery in the incidents they later said he made up.”

Really? Is the Times actually suggesting that the media did their due diligence during the dog days of August 2004 and quickly highlighted the holes in the Swift Boat allegations? That the press unmasked the Swift Boat accusers and dirty tricksters and held them accountable? That Beltway journalists stepped forward and conducted robust fact-checking and concluded that the partisan Swift Boat accusers were not to be taken seriously?

What campaign was the Times watching? (Reminds me of that great Kim Richey song, with the chorus, “You remember the way it never was.”)

By patting the press on the back for its role in “undermin[ing] the Swift Boat charges,” the Times is simply rewriting media history -- a history that it is imperative we understand as the current general election gains momentum.

The sad truth is that the Swift Boat hoax (and that's what it was -- a hoax) did not represent some sort of unvarnished truth-telling by the press. It represented a low point in timid campaign journalism.

“Instead of acting as filters for the truth, reporters nodded and attentively transcribed both sides of the story, invariably failing to provide context, background, or any sense of which claims held up and which were misleading,” wrote Brian Montopoli, Zachary Roth, and Thomas Lang at CJR Daily, back in August 2004.

The press, in other words, got used. Badly.

It was painful enough in 2004 to watch the intimidated press corps stand down while the GOP rolled out its smear campaign. But to watch the press four years later try to pretend it shot down the smears in real time is infuriating.

In terms of the Times, I'm not saying the newspaper did not produce any helpful reporting on the Swift Boat accusers. The newspaper did. But the Times' sterling contributions were few and far between. And the paper routinely reported on the Swift Boat story while ignoring crucial developments and without regularly informing readers that most of the Swift Boat accusations were unsubstantiated.

For instance, in the final week of August 2004, when the controversy was raging in the press, three Vietnam vets independently stepped forward to support Kerry's version of events surrounding his Bronze Star award; a Bronze Star the Swift Boat accusers claimed was a fraud because Kerry had lied about being under fire. The three vets were Wayne Langhofer, Jim Russell, and Robert Lambert. Together, their stories obliterated any claim the Swift Boat Veterans had made about Kerry's Bronze Star being undeserved.

But how did the Times treat those revelations? It mostly ignored them. Neither Langhofer nor Lambert was ever mentioned by the Times, while Russell garnered just brief, passing mentions in the paper of record; a newspaper that published more than 100 articles and columns in 2004 mentioning the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

And note that, on August 23, 2004, the Times published a Page 1 piece regarding the political toll the Swift Boat attacks were taking on Kerry's campaign. Nowhere in the 1,500-word article was it suggested that the Swift Boat claims were unsubstantiated. Tactics were of paramount concern to Times campaign reporters, not so much the facts.

In that regard, the Times was hardly alone in that approach. It became the newsroom norm:

  • The August 20, 2004, PBS' Washington Week hosted a detailed round-table discussion about the Swift Boat controversy, featuring editors and reporters from The Wall Street Journal, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. There was no mention of the glaring gaps in the Swift Boat allegations.
  • An August 24, 2004, Boston Globe front-page article about the Swift Boat controversy and made no mention about the glaring gaps in the allegations against Kerry.
  • August 24, 25, 26, 27, and 28, 2004, Washington Post front-page articles on the Swift Boat controversy made no mention of the glaring gaps in the allegations.

Yet today we're told that "[e]xtensive media accounts undermined the Swift Boat charges in 2004"? Please.

There were other ways the newspaper of record could have clued readers into the absurdity of the Swift Boat allegations. For instance, why didn't The New York Times publish a timely review of the Swift Boat attack book, Unfit for Command. The book was released in August 2004, dominated campaign news that month, and was obviously being taken seriously by the press corps. Shouldn't Times editors have pressed for a timely review of the thin book to help put the unfolding story in some perspective?

You'd think. But then that would have meant drawing the curtain back on the entire charade. Because, as the Daily Howler wrote, “When [co-authors] John O'Neill and Jerome Corsi published Unfit for Command, it was clear -- to anyone who read it -- that the pair were deeply kooky themselves. The book self-contradicts on page after page, and its gonzo chapter on Kerry-the-commie was straight from a mid-50s fever swamp.”

The key, as the Daily Howler noted, was that "[a]ny sensible person who read it would have known that its authors had emerged from those corner bars and were now engaging in 'crackpot theorizing' and 'ill-informed rumor-mongering' right out in public!"

Yet the Times' influential Sunday Book Review waited six weeks before it published a review of Unfit. (The book took, at most, six hours to read.) The review ran on October 10, 2004, several weeks after the book had exited the national stage.

The Times reviewer's conclusion? Unfit for Command “is totally unconvincing.” John O'Neill “is so curdled with hatred for Kerry that, as though he were an unreliable narrator in a Nabokov novel, you can't trust what he says,” and yet he “refuse[s] to back down, even in the face of logic or history.”

But hey, at least The New York Times beat the tortoise-moving Los Angeles Times to the punch. The West Coast newspaper waited nine weeks after Unfit for Command was published to inform readers, via a book review, that it was a farce. (i.e. “This book is not journalism.”)

Please note that The New York Times' recent attempt to rewrite the Swift Boat media history was just the latest in a long line of revisions that began almost the instant the Swift Boat story expired. (Why? Collective guilt, I suspect.)

Following the campaign, Trent Gegax, who covered Kerry for Newsweek, told The American Prospect that the Swift Boat controversy “was a ridiculous story,” and that it “was ridiculous to carry on for weeks when the ads were built on claims that weren't backed up by any documentation. There were misstatements and out-and-out lies that kept this going.”

But in real time, back in August 30, 2004 -- back when it actually mattered to the unfolding campaign -- Gegax co-wrote a Swift Boat piece for Newsweek in which he and Evan Thomas very gently suggested the Swift Boat accusers' “credibility has proved to be questionable.” Gegax and Thomas then meekly concluded it might not be possible to figure out “what really happened on the waterways of the Mekong Delta in the Vietnam War.”

No mention of what a “ridiculous story” the Swift Boat attacks were given how they “weren't backed up by any documentation.”

Instead of holding the Swift Boat accusers accountable, the press played dumb and abandoned its traditional campaign role.

“We are not judging the credibility of Kerry or the (Swift Boat) Veterans, we just print the facts,” Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. proclaimed in 2004; a quote that ought to haunt him into his retirement years.

Think about that mindset: A campaign dispute erupted that pitted a sitting United States senator and Democratic presidential nominee, who had official Pentagon records to back up his wartime service, against a bunch of contradictory veterans who did not have a shred of paperwork to back up their claims but decided to float malicious allegations, 35 years after the fact, about his conduct in Vietnam. And The Washington Post's top newsman looked at the conflict and announced he was not going to judge the credibility of either side?

Why the hell not?

Downie simply turned the Post into a conveyor belt of information, of allegations, of “facts,” as he called them, and steadfastly refused to help readers -- to help voters -- understand which side was telling the truth in the Swift Boat conflict.

Wasn't judging the credibility of the previously unknown Swift Boat accusers precisely what the Post and the Times and the rest of the press should have been doing in August 2004?

Instead, the press demurred and let the GOP smears run wild. But now, as the 2008 campaign heats up, the Times wants to pretend the opposite occurred.

It wants us to remember the way it never was.