While both points may be true, they obscure a
larger reality: The reason that negative attacks could work so well for
the Bush campaign was the preexistence of a vast conservative media
infrastructure that serves as both an echo chamber for Republican
messages and a way to protect George W. Bush and other Republicans from
Indeed, the conservative investment of tens of
billions of dollars in media over the past quarter century may be the
biggest – and least reported – money-in-politics story of modern
American history. The conservatives’ ability to saturate the airwaves
with their version of reality has changed how millions of Americans
understand the world.
So, even when the Democrats can roughly match the
Republicans in election fundraising – as occurred in 2004 with each side
spending about $1 billion – the Republicans have a huge, built-in
advantage because the conservative media reinforces their messages. This
infrastructure also works between elections – day-in-day-out,
year-in-year-out – to keep the Republican base engaged and the Democrats
on the defensive.
In many ways, the impact of this conservative media
infrastructure has gone beyond mere politics to the shaping of
perceptions for large segments of the American people.
From Rush Limbaugh and his many imitators on AM
talk radio to the scores of right-wing commentators filling TV seats and
Op-Ed columns, to Internet bloggers and Fox News, the conservative media
has successfully pitched its own narrative of history. That storyline
portrays liberals as a shadowy conspiracy of traitors who use their
secretive influence, especially over culture, to undermine the United
Liberals get blamed for nearly everything that’s
wrong in the world; conservatives – despite their dominance of the U.S.
government – are the victims. For their part, liberals have done little
to build a counter-media that can challenge this portrayal.
So, it shouldn’t be surprising that a relatively
modest expense to finance the original anti-Kerry ads from the Swift
Boat Veterans for Truth would get a big bang for the buck.
The conservative media infrastructure ensured that
the Swift boat charges would reach tens of millions of Americans tuned
in to AM talk radio and Fox News or reading the conservative press and
the right-wing blogs. It also guaranteed that mainstream news outlets,
such as CNN, would scurry along to play catch-up.
Indeed, what may be more amazing than the
predictable success of this latest smear campaign is that national
Democratic strategists always seem surprised by this media dynamic. One
of Kerry’s closest advisers told me that the campaign knew the Swift
boat attacks were coming but didn’t believe that CNN and other
mainstream news outlets would give them any credence.
The Kerry campaign was stunned when CNN, in
particular, ran with the allegations even though they came from longtime
Kerry haters whose second-hand accusations were contradicted by
eyewitnesses and official military records.
But these political muggings of Democratic
presidential candidates have recurred over and over again – almost a
quadrennial event – at least since 1988. In that important campaign for
the Bush dynasty, Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times helped out George
H.W. Bush’s candidacy by publishing rumors questioning the mental health
of Democrat Michael Dukakis.
Similarly, in 1992, Moon’s newspaper played up wild
charges suggesting that Bill Clinton had served as a KGB agent. [For
details of this history, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
By the mid-1990s, the conservative media
infrastructure had evolved into today’s vertically integrated industry,
including book publishing, magazines, newspapers, talk radio, cable TV
and the Internet.
Increasingly, the conservative media also came to
influence the news judgment of the mainstream press. Often those news
judgments were interchangeable, especially in pursuing supposed
wrongdoing by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
In the 1990s, the Clinton-Gore stories were
invariably big news, while both the conservative and mainstream press
dismissed stories about past wrongdoing by the Reagan-Bush
administration as “conspiracy theories.” It didn’t matter how the actual
facts stacked up. [For the tragic case of Gary Webb and the
contra-cocaine scandal, see Consortiumnews.com’s “America’s
Debt to Journalist Gary Webb.” For the imbalanced coverage of
Campaign 2000, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Protecting
Even as this media imbalance grew more pronounced,
American liberals largely ignored the threat, rather than invest in
media outlets of their own.
Despite the experiences of the Clinton “scandals,”
Gore’s embattled candidacy of 2000 and the generally gentle press
treatment of George W. Bush, the Democrats seemed to expect that some
cyclical pattern would assert itself shifting the news media back into
By contrast, the Republicans/conservatives have
long had a much more sophisticated understanding of how media intersects
with politics and how the media is susceptible to bullying.
This view was summed up in a diary entry by
President Richard Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, who wrote on
April 21, 1972, “The only way we can fight the whole press problem,
[Nixon] feels, is through the [Charles] Colson operation, the
nut-cutters, forcing our news and in a brutal vicious attack on the
But Nixon’s hardball strategy then was not enough,
since it lacked a supportive media infrastructure. By the mid-1970s, the
Republicans had learned that painful lesson from Nixon’s Watergate
debacle, the publication of the secret Pentagon Papers history of the
Vietnam War, and the exposure of CIA scandals.
In the late 1970s, led by former Treasury Secretary
William Simon, conservatives began aggressively building their own media
infrastructure. It grew exponentially during the Reagan-Bush era of the
1980s and reached critical mass during the Clinton-Gore administration
of the 1990s. [For this history, see Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
But even as Clinton impeachment battle of 1998-99
merged into the Gore recount disaster of 2000, Establishment liberals
and the Democratic leadership turned a deaf ear to a rising chorus of
grassroots alarm about the need for a media infrastructure to counteract
the conservative echo chamber.
Instead the Democrats opted for another model,
trying to match the Republicans in fundraising for the presidential
election. With the help of unprecedented sums raised in small donations
on the Internet, the Democrats did nearly match the Republicans in money
spent on the presidential race, $1.14 billion for Republicans and $1.08
billion by Democrats, according to a Washington Post analysis.
The Kerry candidacy also was helped by George W.
Bush’s dismal record as president – from huge budget deficits to a
disastrous war in Iraq – and by a highly motivated Democratic base,
still furious over Bush’s strong-arm election tactics in 2000.
Still, that was not enough to deny Bush a second
term. Again, the conservative media infrastructure proved to be crucial.
Swift Boat Case
As one key example of how the Republicans got the
better of the Democrats, Washington Post reporters Thomas B. Edsall and
James V. Grimaldi cited the first anti-Kerry Swift boat ad in August
2004, which cost $546,000 and accused Kerry of lying to win medals for
heroism in Vietnam.
“The Swift Boat Veterans eventually would raise and
spend $28 million, but the first ad was exceptionally cost effective:
most voters learned about it through free coverage in mainstream media
and talk radio,” Edsall and Grimaldi wrote.
Kerry media adviser Tad Devine said the Kerry
campaign was short of funds at the time, preventing an effective
response. “We would have had answers to the attacks in kind, saying they
were false, disproved by newspapers,” Devine said. [Washington Post,
Dec. 30, 2004]
But by the time several major newspapers, such as
the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, noted the holes in the Swift
boat charges, the anti-Kerry smears had circulated widely and had badly
damaged Kerry’s reputation.
While the attacks reverberated through the
conservative echo chamber and through mainstream outlets like CNN, the
eventual debunking of the charges got only muted attention. Few
Americans, for instance, knew that even Vietnamese civilians at the site
of one battle where Kerry fought heroically backed the U.S. military’s
official account of that firefight, not the disparaging version pushed
by the anti-Kerry veterans.
The Swift boat lies succeeded in tarring Kerry as a
phony because there was no comparable liberal media infrastructure to
make the case that the smear was just the latest example of a pro-Bush
dirty trick. [For more on the Swift boat case, see Consortiumnews.com’s
Play the ‘Traitor’ Card” and “Reality
on the Ballot.”]
In his election analysis, columnist E.J. Dionne
takes note of the effectiveness of Bush’s negative campaign strategy but
also misses the media’s role.
“President Bush won reelection by ignoring the
conventional wisdom that vicious attacks on your opponent don’t work and
turn off voters,” Dionne wrote. “As soon as John Kerry won the
Democratic nomination, Bush’s campaign went on the attack and never
stopped. It worked.” [Washington Post, Dec. 31, 2004]
But it worked because the conservative media
infrastructure could be counted on to promote the attack lines, and much
of the mainstream media could be expected to do what it’s done for years
now – fall in line with the brash conservatives as they define what the
When liberals did criticize Bush and his policies,
both the conservative and mainstream media framed the attacks as a Bush
“hate-fest.” Liberals – from documentary producer Michael Moore to
comedian Whoopi Goldberg – were called on the carpet for supposed
In summer 2004, the media drumbeat about the
anticipated Bush “hate-fest” grew so loud that Kerry’s advisers began
deleting criticisms of Bush from Democratic convention speeches. The
keynote address by Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama didn’t even
mention Bush’s name.
By contrast, the Republicans unleashed an
anti-Kerry “hate-fest” at the GOP convention, which included Sen. Zell
Miller’s bitter denunciation of the Democratic candidate, while Bush
delegates sported Purple Heart band-aids to mock Kerry’s war wounds.
Neither the conservative media nor the mainstream media termed the
Republican convention a “hate-fest,” however.
The simple reality is that the conservative media
infrastructure buys the Republicans a lot of leeway to act aggressively.
They can focus on playing offense and count on help if they ever get
forced onto the defensive.
By contrast, the lack of a comparable liberal media
infrastructure leaves the Democrats little choice but to finesse the
political situation. That, in turn, makes them look weak and indecisive.
What Campaign 2004 proved was that this political imbalance cannot be
corrected simply by matching the Republicans in campaign fundraising.
A big part of the answer to why the Democrats are
on their long losing streak is clear: It’s the media, stupid!