Saturday, November 19, 2011

Swiftboating's Progress

President Obama addressing the Australian Parliament.   
In the summer of 2004, after the Democratic National Convention nominated John Kerry for President, a series of political ads featured someone who once served with John Kerry on his swiftboat in Vietnam claiming that Kerry's heroics were made up, and that he was essentially lying about them.  There was so much evidence to the contrary easily available to the media that the Kerry campaign ignored the charges, assuming they would be debunked or that they were so obviously and sleazily false that they would never be taken seriously by anyone, and would just fade away.

But apparently responding to the juice of controversy, the media did take the charges seriously, repeating them over and over, giving them more attention than the ads themselves.  News organizations were very slow to offer the convincing counter-evidence, which of course meant that the story would die and readers and viewers would go away.  At least that's one interpretation of their motives.

This slander now has a name.  It's called "swiftboating."  It has that name because it was remarkably successful, and politics and the media have not been the same.  Swiftboating can be identified as a Karl Rove strategy to attack a candidate's strength.  John Kerry had a compelling story of heroism in battle, the kind of story that ordinary Americans and perhaps especially Republicans might respond to.  Not since JFK's heroism saving the lives of his PT Boat crew did a candidate have such a story.  Perhaps it was even the notion that to question a war hero's heroism was dishonorable that gave fuel to the charge--because who would dare lie about that?

In the past week both Cowboy Rick and (with less notice but with more importance) Newt Romney have made the same charge against President Obama: that he said that Americans are lazy.  Some observers feel this is the kind of charge that will surface strongly in the general election campaign, as they have in the past couple of years, to reinforce the idea that President Obama is alien, not one of us, not a "real American," and someone who disdains ordinary Americans.  (This was elaborated in a slightly different way by Cowboy Rick and Her man Koch-Cain, indicating that President Obama thinks he's so smart, he's looking down at you. Rick went so far to say that Obama grew up "privileged.")

President Obama did not say that Americans are lazy, but then again, John Kerry really was a hero.  But before we get to the media response, let's deconstruct these assertions a little more.  The more general impression fed by this particular lie is that Obama is alien, which reinforces the notion that because he is black he is not a real American.  Glenn Beck was much more straightforward when he said, not that Obama disdains real Americans, but that he hates white people.  Not every racist GOPer wanted to hear those words said out loud, and maybe they can't even say them to themselves, but that's what this "real American" thing is about.  This is further reinforced by the very word "lazy."  The lazy black man is one of the oldest racist stereotypes in America.  So how dare that black President say that white Americans are lazy.  As for Obama being privileged, he clearly was not--unless of course you don't believe anything anyone has ever said about him, including the state of Hawaii on where he was born.  But that doesn't matter.  The point is to reinforce the accompanying racist notion that Obama was privileged by affirmative action.  He was given a free ride into the best schools because he is black.  And because of those high class schools, he arrogantly thinks he's smart.

So far there has been a markedly different media response to specifically the Cowboy Rick charges.  After it had been reported in the marginally objective way by, for example, NBC's First Read, the cable talkers had at it.  Black commentators pointed out some of the racist dog-whistle subtext.  Several shows demonstrated how out of context the lazy quote was by playing it in context (It turns out that President Obama was saying "we" meaning U.S. government and businesses that weren't promoting investment in the U.S. as assidiously as they should.) By the time the evening came around, Lawrence O'Donnell was lifting the words "Americans are lazy" from these Republican candidates in the same way they had lifted the words out of context from President Obama, to make the point.  Print outlets like the NY Times also made this point.  By Friday, shockingly, even Bill O'Really at Fox was questioning Cowboy Rick about it.

What's changed is partly institutional.  There are places like that are quick to analyze statements, and news organizations find them credible enough to quote.  There is also, paradoxically, the rise of Fox "News."  For years Fox News looked like the future of cable news.  It apparently caused CNN to dismantle itself as a mostly news organization.  Everyone was running scared in the direction of Fox's "conservative" orientation because it had the largest audience.  But as Fox became more brazenly and obviously partisan and ideological, MSNBC discovered--almost accidentally--that an audience that had nowhere to go, was ripe and ready for progressive political shows.  This was discovered by means of the mildly progressive political segments of Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" which started out with the countdown gimmick of rating the day's events in terms of outrageousness, and at least half of which was devoted to exploring comic events and videos. Olbermann also found an anti-Fox audience by going after Fox's O'Reilly, often on O'Really's distortions.  Thus accuracy as a progressive media value was born as part of the brand.  Then as Olbermann became more outspoken--especially with his "Special Comment" segments--his ratings and visibility shot up, and the MSNBC of today was born, as a progressive counterpart to Fox, minus the actual Fox lying. 

As this was going on gradually, very quickly the blogosphere was morphing and consolidating, and a few sites were growing into powerful institutions.  But while the most prominent of the early political blogs were Rabid Right, the progressive blogosphere became dominant.  So now there is progressive synergy--not so much with talk radio (though there is more progressive talk radio than before)--but with the big progressive blogs and MSNBC as well as particular journalists for newspapers, magazines and TV--media companies.  So the model now is someone like Howard Fineman, who moved from print to the AOL-Huffington Post conglomerate, partly due to his prominence on MSNBC shows, beginning with Keith.

President Obama in Australia with its prime minster 
 This clearly does not mean that swiftboating, along with other slanders, won't be prominently attempted.  Nothing much is beyond the pall now.  For example, Cowboy Rick was making his statements that further impugned President Obama's ability to represent the United States with foreign powers, at a moment when President Obama was abroad, representing the United States.  Until very recently, it was considered dishonorable and unpatriotic and actually dangerous to criticize the President while he was on foreign soil, and no official of either party ever did it, or ever got away with it.

Whether swiftboating in 2012 can be as effective as it was in 2004 is still an open question.  But so far it seems that it won't go forward so easily through a gullible and disconcerted media--or more to the point, through a media that has no identifiably progressive element in its audience.

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