Article — From the November 2004 issue

Our Friend the Smear

Notes on the origin of specious

However much we might prefer our elections to be decided on the issues, victory on November 2 will almost certainly belong to the side that propagates the most effective smear. For this reason, it is worthwhile to develop our understanding of the smear and of its peculiar niche in our political ecosystem. What is it that allows the smear to thrive? What are its haunts and its habits? To answer these questions, let us examine the life cycle of a particularly robust smear—the ad campaign of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth—within the confines of a single TV network (ABC). As we will see, the life cycle of a smear has four distinct phases.

1. Gestation

In order to survive in the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the smear must develop two defenses or else perish. The first is that it seem new, and in this it enjoys a natural advantage over the truths with which it must compete. Most truths about a presidential candidate have been reported to the point that they seem, to reporters and editors, like commonplaces; a story that “everybody knows” is in danger of being left behind as reporters “move on.”

The second defense is that the smear seem solid, and this is merely a question of time. With luck (or careful planning) the smear will soon develop a defensive layer of fact—for example, when a candidate makes a preemptive denial, which the media can immediately report, along with the smear itself. In the case of the Swift Boat smear, its benefactors supplied its factual shell by taking out ads, a legitimate news event. And thus, on or around August 5, was a smear born. From the next day’s Good Morning America:

Diane Sawyer: Well, this morning, we’re turning now to a new hot potato being passed around on the campaign trail. A group of Vietnam veterans is casting a shadow on John Kerry’s war record, and ABC’s Jake Tapper has a report on all this from Washington. Jake?

Jake Tapper: Good morning, Diane. Well, these anti-Kerry Vietnam veterans have launched a very controversial new ad in a few key battleground states, slamming John Kerry’s record as a soldier.

2. Controversy as story

Once a smear has been accepted into the ecosystem, journalists can simply report on the dispute; e.g., the ad was a “hot potato,” “very controversial.” This approach allows the smear to grow quickly: if the story is the controversy, then reporters must adopt a mechanical evenhandedness, by which lies and truth are granted equal time. Thus ABC’s next major treatment of the Swift Boat story, August 9 on Nightline, began with a series of clips juxtaposing the Swift Boat ads with the words of Kerry supporters. The voiceover from ABC anchor Michel Martin: “John Kerry, the decorated war hero… Or John Kerry, war fraud?” In his introductory remarks, Martin elaborated:

[A]lmost thirty years after the war ended, many people cannot even agree on the facts. Especially when those facts become part of the political battlefield. John Kerry has been campaigning with his comrades from Vietnam, to make the case that he is ready to be commander in chief. And now an opposing group of veterans has challenged him and his record. Here’s ABC’s Jake Tapper.

Only after another sustained barrage of disagreeing vets (four anti-Kerry, two pro-) did Tapper upset the magnificent equipoise with this:

The Kerry campaign calls the charges wrong, offensive, and politically motivated, and points to naval records that seemingly contradict the charges. Adding to the murkiness about these many accusations is the fact that when Kerry faced similar questions about his Silver Star during his 1996 Senate race, two of the swift-boat veterans opposing him now defended him then.

Later, Tapper informed viewers that funding for the Swift Boat ads had been provided by a Republican donor with close ties to Karl Rove. In the sophisticated wordplay of the controversy-as-story, this fact, as with the naval records and the rest, was taken not to exonerate the accused but to further add to the “murkiness.”

3. Story as story

Once a smear has survived a few weeks, it can begin to subsist as the basis for itself. The classic indication that a smear has reached this stage is when a candidate is “dogged by a story that will not go away.” When Nightline rejoined the Swift Boat story on August 19, anchor Chris Bury in fact marked the transition with just those words. After rehashing the ad and the controversy, he then dove into a lengthy meta-analysis:

So how did one TV ad, which appeared in only three states, become a national story that would not go away? More on that when we come back.

During this later stage, repetition replaces controversy in nourishing the smear. In the three weeks leading up to the Republican Convention, portions of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad—with its short, repetitive statements such as “John Kerry is no war hero,” “John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam,” “John Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star”—were replayed on twenty-six different network and cable news programs, not even counting those on Fox News.

4. Story as story line

With ubiquity, the smear has reached its final, mature state. The Swift Boat story indeed will dog Kerry for the remainder of the campaign, no matter how thoroughly and frequently it is discredited. It now resonates, in the sense that Ted Koppel used the word on September 1, in the following exchange on Nightline with comedian Jon Stewart:

Koppel: The problem, Jon, is—and here is where I think the Republicans have got John Kerry dead to rights… when he came out there and said “John Kerry, reporting for duty,” when he has made every public appearance in recent memory in the presence of his band of brothers, when there is not a public appearance that doesn’t in some way reflect on the Vietnam experience, then the Vietnam experience becomes central.

Stewart: Absolutely relevant, but that doesn’t make the lies true.

Koppel: No… But it makes them particularly resonant.

Why, in the end, do some smears “resonate” while others falter? The answer, quite simply, is that successful smears travel in herds. The Swift Boat smear now makes its lair within a vast and welcoming habitat of Republican smears, which together provide the permanent media talking points for “why some people oppose Kerry”: untrustworthy flip-flopper, weak on terrorism, may have lied about his medals. Political strategists praise the Republicans for their “message discipline,” and this is especially earned with respect to their smears, to the unwavering story line by which they have maligned John Kerry. Whereas smears from the left have been equally vigorous, as a brood they are far less harmonious—Bush is portrayed one day as a nefarious genius, the next as a dimwitted puppet; one day as an upper-crust plutocrat, the next as a pious yokel. The right, by contrast, displays an integrity of character assassination. Kerry’s greatest enemy on Election Day will not be President Bush but his pack of smears, which will be nothing if not exceptionally well bred.

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is a senior editor of Harper’s Magazine and the editor of Submersion Journalism .

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