united states project

Looking for Lessons in the Swift Boat Saga

Is Ohio's press corps prepared for the 2012 campaign?
January 19, 2012

OHIO — In 2004, it was the Swift Boat ads.

Today in Ohio, we’ve seen the Swift Beard ads.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, Ohio was one of five battleground states targeted for millions of dollars in negative television advertisements produced by a group known as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The ads accused Democratic nominee John Kerry, who had earned Bronze and Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts for his service during the Vietnam War, of lying about his record. Thorough investigations by major national news outlets eventually concluded that the accusations against Kerry were unsubstantiated (though they also found inconsistencies in parts of his account)—but not before the ads, and the debate they generated, reshaped the campaign.

On a much smaller scale, local stations here last November began featuring an ad produced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce attacking Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who is running for re-election. The ad took Brown to task for “killing jobs” and “raising taxes”; it also featured a grainy photo of a bearded Brown, looking as though he had just appeared from a days-long bender, which turned out to be heavily altered. (A Chamber spokesman told the Beltway newspaper The Hill he could neither confirm nor deny the Chamber’s artistic endeavors.)

The anti-Brown ad was a relatively small bit of chicanery, which rated only a few short mentions in the mainstream press. Still, it was a sign that national political players have again set their sights on Ohio—and that reporters here will need to devote time and effort to help voters sort out truth from fiction.

And, perhaps, apply some lessons from experience. During the 2004 Swift Boat episode, the Ohio press relied heavily on national publications to execute the digging that helped get to the bottom of the story. William HerseyHershey, former chief of the statehouse bureau at the Dayton Daily News, now says he wishes he had dug a little deeper.

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“I wish I had sounded out more Vietnam veterans on the whole Swift Boat issue, including those who served with Kerry and those who didn’t,” Hershey said.

Still, journalists face an uphill battle in stopping the spin cycle, he said. “Say that something like this happens again and we are prepared and cover it vigorously and do all the fact-checking,” Hershey said. “I don’t know that any amount of preparation and learning lessons from a previous time could combat what is going on in cyberspace and in TV ads.”

The Swift Boat ads, funded by wealthy Texans who supported President Bush, certainly caught the press here by surprise. Joe HalletHallett, a senior editor and political columnist for The Columbus Dispatch, watched veterans at a national VFW convention in Cincinnati reject Kerry, despite the fact that he “legitimately and objectively” was a war hero. He saw it as a masterful campaign to undermine Kerry.

“This was something I hadn’t seen,” Hallett recalled. “They were really able to embed a lot of doubt in voter’s memories.”

Hallett found his dual role of reporter and columnist advantageous in covering these events. Time, and journalistic standards of objectivity, can be an enemy of the press in rapidly moving campaign coverage, he says.

“Too often these are he-said, she-said stories,” Hallett said. “A lot of the reporting related to Swift Boat was just that, rather than reporters finding time to take a deep look at Kerry’s war records.”

He found some comfort, and time to reflect, in the column format.

“From a reporter’s point of view, it is more difficult to write about the whole Swift Boat episode then it is for a columnist,” Hallett said. “When you are covering a campaign day to day, chasing one event after another, time constraints don’t give you as much opportunity to do in-depth reporting.”

Still, Hallett believes reporters have a responsibility to push through the fog of accusations—though, as other observers have noted, doing so can put mainstream outlets in an uncomfortable position.

“As much as we have an obligation to be objective, we still need to point out when something is bullshit,” says Hallett. “We have that obligation to the readers, but then we also get painted as favoring one side or another.”

Another veteran Ohio journalist, Jack Torry, was not critical of the media coverage of the Swift Boat controversy. Like some other journalists here, he faulted the Kerry campaign for not responding more aggressively.

But Torry, the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Columbus Dispatch, had a suggestion for campaign coverage that might give reporters more time—and that he said would shift attention to the “issues,” and away from the horse race.

“If I had my way, I would ban reporters from traveling on the candidates’ planes,” Torry said. “Instead, larger newspapers should do more zone coverage—putting people in the key states of Ohio, Florida, Missouri, Pennsylvania, etc.”

Newspaper campaign coverage here has shifted notably in at least one way since 2004: major papers have become more aggressive with “ad watch” stories, which many journalists see as an effective tool in blunting mud-slinging campaigns. Some Ohio political reporters would like to see newspapers go even further and run ad watches on the front page.

But others are more skeptical. Newspapers are no match for the power of television ad campaigns, said Brent Larkin, retired editorial director and now a weekly columnist for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.

“The TV message matters more than anything else,” said Larkin. “Sure, newspaper coverage on this stuff matters, but the fact is that readership declines means it matters less than a decade ago… The sad truth is a story on Page B-1 of a major metropolitan newspaper hardly has the impact of a $500,000 television buy.”

It’s a fair point. Which means that the task of scrutinizing the campaigns’ claims can’t fall only on print journalists, and also that reporters of all types will need to be not just careful and dogged, but also creative, in helping voters uncover the truth—especially considering that, as Larkin said, “nothing that happens in 2012 will surprise me.”

“People are throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. It’s not like that is new, but it is more amplified,” says Hallett. “It’s more difficult for readers to sift through what is real and not real.”

Like fake beards.

Correction: This post originally misspelled the names of William Hershey and Joe Hallett. The errors have been fixed. CJR regrets the errors.

T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.