Advocacy organizations typically receive little time or space to express their opinions in mainstream media discussions, so it’s not surprising that they turn to political advertisements as an alternative means of getting their message out to the public. A paid publicity campaign may legitimize the activists’ efforts as a coverage-worthy “controversy” in the eyes of corporate media, so advocacy groups can sometimes parlay small ad buys into big news stories—particularly if their commercials make hard-hitting and dramatic charges.
This process is ripe for exploitation, of course. Front groups launched to do dirty work for a candidate or political party can reap airtime rewards with ads that skirt the edge of honesty. And when activists for different causes are seeking access to the media stage, their claims are held to wildly varying standards—largely based on whether or not the viewpoint being promoted has powerful sympathizers inside the media. These double standards are illustrated by a look at the media treatment of two recent ad campaigns from two high-profile advocacy groups: The anti-John Kerry spots of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and a commercial attacking Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts from the reproductive rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America.
When the ad hoc group known as the Swift Boat Vets launched their attack on 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Kerry, the group quickly achieved media stardom and became a household name. Their accusations that Kerry misrepresented his Vietnam record and didn’t deserve his numerous decorations—“Kerry’s phony war crimes charges, and his exaggerated claims about his service in Vietnam,” as one ad put it—were repeated endlessly as Swift Boat leaders became ubiquitous TV guests, often accompanied by free re-airings of their spots. These dramatic claims gave a significant boost to George W. Bush’s campaign by casting doubt on Kerry’s honesty and tarnishing his image as war hero; some credit the group with a major role in Kerry’s defeat (Washington Post, 11/6/05; Boston Globe, 11/14/05).
Almost one year later, NARAL sharply attacked Roberts, Bush’s first nominee to the Supreme Court, in an ad that looked back at a case in which Roberts, as deputy solicitor general for the Reagan administration, had intervened on the side of Operation Rescue, a group that specialized in blockading clinics to physically prevent women from having abortions. The ad called attention to the fact that a convicted clinic bomber was one of the petitioners aided by Roberts’ intervention.
But if NARAL expected to spark the same media discussion that the Swift Boat Vets had with their ads, the pro-choice group was sorely mistaken: Mainstream media immediately and definitively denounced the ad, intimidating the battered group into pulling it. The entire episode vanished from the media radar in a matter of days.
Both NARAL and the Swift Boat Vets released their ads in August, generally a slow news month in Washington when a bored press corps is impatient for a ratings-boosting controversy. So why was one advocacy group promoted to media stardom by their ad campaign, while the other was promptly cane-yanked off the stage? Were the ads so different that one warranted weeks of attention while the other deserved swift oblivion?
Examining NARAL’s claims
The NARAL ad, released August 8, 2005, begins by describing the aftermath of a 1998 abortion bombing, then explaining to viewers that “Supreme Court nominee John Roberts filed court briefs supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted clinic bomber.” A victim of the 1998 bombing then declares, “I’m determined to stop this violence so I’m speaking out.” The ad concludes by urging viewers to tell senators to vote “no” on Roberts: “America can’t afford a justice whose ideology leads him to excuse violence against other Americans.”
The NARAL ad makes two claims about Roberts—that he filed briefs in support of a violent group and a convicted bomber, and that his ideology led him to “excuse violence” against women. The first claim is correct; in the case in question, Bray v. Alexandria Clinic, Roberts (then a Reagan White House lawyer) did indeed file a brief on behalf of clinic blockaders who included leaders of Operation Rescue and Michael Bray, who was convicted of a series of clinic bombings in the 1980s. Calling Operation Rescue “violent” is a defensible characterization; physically preventing people from exercising their rights can be seen as inherently violent, and the blockades repeatedly escalated into criminal assaults.
The second NARAL claim is more complicated. Bray v. Alexandria Clinic concerned the use of a civil rights-era law to provide federal protection to women entering abortion clinics that were being blockaded by Bray and members of Operation Rescue. Roberts’ brief (and oral arguments he made to the Supreme Court) maintained that the law should not be interpreted to protect women from the blockaders’ unlawful actions. And those actions were not merely nonviolent civil disobedience; as noted in the trial and cited by dissenting judges Stevens and Blackmun, blockaders created a “substantial risk that existing or prospective patients may suffer physical or mental harm.”
NARAL seems to be arguing that Roberts’ position had the effect of “excusing” behavior that was part of a continuum of violence against women—violence that found its extreme in clinic bombings. Because the 30-second ad—which contains a total of 91 words, both spoken and in on-screen text—gives the viewer none of that context or nuance, though, it could give the impression that Roberts defended Bray in an actual clinic-bombing case, or argued that clinic bombing was justifiable. In other words, the ad is not factually untrue, but it could be considered misleading.
A hypothetical left-wing bomber
NARAL’s critics claimed Roberts’ position did not reflect his support for fringe anti-abortion groups, but simply addressed a legal question of the applicability of a specific law—and that therefore it was inaccurate to say he had “excused” violence.
But consider a hypothetical situation in which the shoe was on the opposite partisan foot. Imagine that a deputy solicitor general in the Clinton administration had filed a brief on behalf of a convicted bomber from the radical left—a saboteur for the Animal Liberation Front, say, or someone who had planted bombs for a Puerto Rican nationalist group—who went on to be involved in some kind of unlawful protest activity. Then suppose that President Kerry, after winning the 2004 election, had nominated this Clinton alum to be on the Supreme Court.
Is it possible to imagine that conservative critics would not bring up the fact that this nominee had previously intervened on behalf of a convicted bomber? Would mainstream media reject such criticisms as unworthy of attention because the nominee had not specifically endorsed bombing, or criticize a conservative advocacy group for arguing that the nominee’s plea for the bomber constituted “excusing violence”?
Difficult as it may be to envision a Clinton administration lawyer filing such a brief, or a President Kerry nominating the author of that brief to the Supreme Court, it’s even harder to believe that mainstream media would rule that advocacy on behalf of a violent terrorist was not a legitimate topic for a Supreme Court confirmation debate. Yet that’s exactly what the media did with the NARAL ad.
Contradictions and creative editing
The Swift Boat Vets released two major ads. In the first one, released August 5, 2004, Vietnam veterans who said they served with Kerry accused him of “lying about his record” to receive both his Bronze Star and his first Purple Heart. But eyewitness testimony from the sailors who actually served on Kerry’s swift boat, along with official, contemporaneous military records, stand firmly behind Kerry’s version of these events.
For example, Lt. James Rassmann, whose rescue from the Bay Hap River in the jungles of Vietnam in March 1969 won Kerry a Bronze Star, backed up Kerry’s account. Documents released from the Pentagon’s National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis showed that the Swift Boat Vet who claimed to have treated Kerry for the wound that got him his first Purple Heart was not the medical officer who signed the report. Even previous testimonies from some of the Swift Boat Vets contradicted their newer accusations (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 8/12/04).
The second Swift Boat ad attacked Kerry’s 1971 Senate testimony on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Earlier in 1971, VVAW had held a three-day conference on war crimes called the Winter Soldier Investigation. Over 100 veterans described atrocities they had witnessed or participated in, including rape, torture and killing of non-combatants.
Describing the Winter Soldier Investigation to a Senate committee in 1971, Kerry began, “They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads,” going on to list a variety of atrocities that Vietnam vets had testified to at the tribunal. Kerry did not imply, nor would any listener assume, that he was making accusations against soldiers or claiming to have witnessed the atrocities himself in Vietnam. And atrocities of these types did occur, as documented by journalistic investigations from Seymour Hersh’s work on My Lai (Dispatch News Service, 11/13/69, 11/20/69) to the Toledo Blade’s recent Tiger Force exposé (10/22/03).
The second Swift Boat ad carefully edits Kerry’s statement to eliminate the crucial beginning—“they told the stories”—giving the impression that Kerry himself was leveling charges against fellow veterans, rather than relaying their own testimony. When the ad charges, “He betrayed us in the past, how could we be loyal to him now?” it does so on the basis of doctored evidence.
It’s very difficult to argue that the Swift Boat Vets ads, contradicted by eyewitnesses and official documents and based on deceptive editing, had firmer factual grounding than the NARAL ad. Why, then, was NARAL’s ad dismissed so quickly, while the Swift Boat ads floated for weeks on a wave of media attention?
Swift Boat cheering section
The Swift Boat Vets had one crucial dynamic on their side: the right-wing pundits who championed their cause. When the group’s ads aired, its leaders became instant celebrities. Prominent conservative pundits like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Robert Novak became staunch supporters, and leaders of the group became fixtures on right-wing talk radio and cable TV. Media Matters for America, a liberal media watch group, followed the coverage of the Swift Boat story intensively (e.g., 8/5/04, 8/12/04, 8/13/04), documenting that the group’s claims were frequently aired on cable news and talk radio programs without any mention of contradictory evidence .
No comparable group of progressive media figures became advocates for NARAL, in large part due to the fact that no comparable stable of left-wing pundits exists in mainstream media, and few media platforms exist for progressive views.
Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, and Sean Hannity of Fox’s Hannity & Colmes featured the Swift Boat Vets’ charges in an astonishing 16 shows each during the month of August 2004. The first spate of attention began on August 4, the day before the first ad came out, and when the second ad was released on August 20, both hosts made it a topic of every single one of their shows for the next week.
Fox’s Bill O’Reilly took a different approach; he routinely claimed to “deplore” the Swift Boat ads, declaring when the first ad came out (8/5/04) that he was “angry about this ad because I do not believe this is the kind of discourse we should have in this country.” O’Reilly then proceeded to drag out that discourse in 13 of his shows over the course of the month, and argued (8/10/04) that both sides in the debate “may be sincere and correct.”
Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson devoted generous amounts of airtime to the Swift Boat Vets on CNN’s Crossfire, where the two championed the group in no less than 10 episodes during the month of August 2004 alone. Novak didn’t mention until early September that his son worked as the marketing director for Regnery, the company that published Unfit for Command, the book by Swift Boat Vet leader John O’Neill (New York Times, 8/30/04).
But it wasn't just cable's opinion shows that flogged the story. Fox's flagship news program, Special Report With Brit Hume, featured the Swift Boat charges on a regular basis. As a panelist on Fox News Sunday, Hume declared (8/29/04): “The old media is trying now to get rid of this story. But there’s too much new media. And it was the new media that brought it to the fore, and my guess is the new media will keep it in the fore. And I don’t see any way that this story gets stopped.”
Of course, as managing editor of the Washington bureau at Fox News, Hume himself could have done a great deal to stop the story, but nearly a month after the first ad was launched and after it had been the topic of dozens of segments on his network, Hume still claimed that “there are a lot of details that are left to be explored”—and Fox continued to “explore” them.
Suddenly functional truth detectors
As cable pundits continued to interview and discuss the Swift Boat Vets, most news reporters seemed loath to put an end to the “debate.” As NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving put it (NPR.org, 8/25/04), “There is no way that journalism can satisfy those who think that Kerry is a liar or that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are liars.”
One year after the anti-Kerry ads came out, however, journalism suddenly found itself newly capable of passing such judgments, as reporters easily declared that the NARAL ad was “misleading” or “false” just 48 hours after the ads were released. Often these were the same reporters who had found it impossible to make a similarly definitive judgment on the Swift Boat ads.
For instance, on ABC’s Good Morning America, correspondent Jake Tapper called the Swift Boat ad (8/6/04) “tough,” “controversial” and “harsh.” When NARAL’s ad came out, Tapper condemned it as “misleading” (8/10/05).
When Andrea Mitchell spoke with Sen. Joe Biden about the NARAL ad on NBC’s Meet the Press (8/14/05), she said the ad was “by all accounts misleading.” One year earlier, when she asked the New York Times’ Anne Kornblut (8/15/04) about “the truth of [Kerry’s] record” in the face of the first Swift Boat ad, she passed no judgment on the ad herself, nor did she question Kornblut’s claim that the ad was “truly something that’s subjective.”
One clear factor in the media’s quick judgment on the NARAL ad was the authoritative pronouncement, the day after the ad was released, by FactCheck.org, a self-described “consumer advocate for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics,” which became popular with reporters during the 2004 campaign for analysis of presidential campaign ads. “The ad is false,” declared FactCheck’s Matthew Barge on the group’s website (8/9/05). Many journalists presented this statement as the definitive verdict on the ad, rather than as the opinion of one nonprofit advocacy group about another.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne told readers (8/12/05) to “consult FactCheck.org . . . not a haven for the right-wing conspiracy—to find out all that is wrong with the ad.” When FactCheck’s director, Brooks Jackson, appeared on CNN, where Jackson once worked, Lou Dobbs (Lou Dobbs Tonight, 8/10/05) supported his former colleague by declaring that “the ad is absolutely wrong, according to the Annenberg watchdog there.”
Journalists frequently trumpeted Fact-Check.org’s dependability and trustworthiness by noting its nonpartisan status and academic ties. (The website is affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.) The Washington Times (8/11/05) published an editorial headlined “Lies From the Far Left,” noting that its “analysis of the ad comes from the non-partisan Annenberg Political Fact Check.” CNN’s Jeff Greenfield (8/11/05) went so far as to call it, rather nonsensically, “the most nonpartisan group you can find.”
“Some missing context”
While it’s true that FactCheck is nonpartisan, in the sense that it’s not affiliated with any party, that doesn’t mean that it necessarily gives the same treatment to claims from left and right. Indeed, a comparison of the group’s analyses of the Swift Boat ads and the NARAL ad shows that it held the ads to quite different standards.
For example, FactCheck (8/9/05) argued that because the Bray case didn’t involve bombing, the NARAL ad “misleads when it says Roberts supported a clinic bomber”—even though Roberts did actually provide legal support to a convicted clinic bomber. Yet when the second Swift Boat ad selectively edited Kerry’s Senate testimony, FactCheck (8/23/04) simply acknowledged, “There is some missing context,” but was careful to include the Swift Boat perspective—noting of the Winter Soldier atrocity reports, for instance, that “Kerry was passing them on as true stories.”
FactCheck said that it was providing the “missing context”—the part of Kerry’s speech where he indicates that he’s citing others rather than leveling his own charges—“so that readers can judge for themselves how much the added context might change their understanding of how Kerry was quoted in the ad.” This eagerness to allow readers to make up their own minds, however, was noticeably absent from FactCheck’s NARAL critique.
To the contrary, FactCheck wrote definitively in its NARAL ad analysis that “what Roberts was supporting wasn’t violence or bombing or even the behavior that was the subject of the lawsuit—blockades of clinics.” It went on to outline the technical legal issue that was the focus of Roberts’ brief.
It may be FactCheck’s opinion that White House lawyers choose which cases they will voluntarily intervene in on the basis of abstract legal principles—that Roberts would have been just as likely to support a bomber for the Weather Underground as for the anti-abortion movement, if he thought the law was on the Weather Underground’s side. Surely, though, NARAL was not taking a far-out stance when it suggested that such choices are actually political decisions, and that these decisions can fairly be examined as evidence of where a lawyer’s sympathies lie.
FactCheck’s partiality was further elucidated by its remarkable claim that Operation Rescue’s blockades “mirrored the nonviolent tactics used earlier by civil-rights activists.” Comparing blockades that physically prevented women from seeking abortions—that is, from exercising a right recognized by the Supreme Court as constitutionally guaranteed—to African-American protesters who pursued their own constitutional rights by sitting in whites-only areas is a bizarre analogy, more outlandish than anything that appeared in the NARAL ad.
FactCheck’s special pleading on behalf of Roberts is perhaps best illustrated by this passage from its attack on NARAL’s ad: “Whatever one thinks of Bray, [anti-choice leader Randall] Terry or Operation Rescue, it is misleading to say that Roberts supported them. He was not their attorney; the protestors had their own attorney, Jay Alan Sekulow, for that.” Surely it is absurd to suggest that a lawyer who filed a brief titled “Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae Supporting Petitioners” was not supporting the petitioners in that case.
A different standard
Contrary to its willingness to pass judgment on NARAL’s ad, Fact-Check cautiously avoided venturing any opinion about the Swift Boat ads. In its analysis of the August 4, 2004 ad (8/6/04), FactCheck cited a great deal of evidence that contradicted the ad’s claims—including the official Naval records and testimony from sailors who actually served on Kerry’s boat, as well as conflicting previous testimony from some Swift Boat Vets themselves. After noting these contradictions, FactCheck’s conclusion was nevertheless explicitly ambivalent: “At this point, 35 years later and half a world away, we see no way to resolve which of these versions of reality is closer to the truth.”
When discussing the Swift Boat ads on NPR (8/9/04), FactCheck’s Jackson cautiously called the Swift Boat Vets and the Kerry versions of the medals “two different views of reality,” rebuking a caller who termed the allegations lies by saying, “We can’t call these lies.” Of course, if Jackson believed that one couldn’t call one side of this debate a lie, then he should have labeled as false the Swift Boat ad’s claim (repeated four times) that Kerry’s view was a “lie”—something he refused to do.
On CNN, after the group’s second ad aired, Soledad O’Brien (8/25/04) asked Jackson if the ad was “based on the facts [or] over the top”—and Jackson’s response, once again, was equivocal: “Different people are going to come to different opinions on that when they look at the full record—which you can’t do in four minutes, obviously.”
Jackson could, of course, have said the same thing about NARAL’s ad—substituting “30 seconds” for “four minutes.” Taking that position would have meant holding an attack on a Republican Supreme Court nominee to the same standard as an attack on a Democratic presidential candidate—something which, for whatever reason, FactCheck seemed disinclined to do. The group that media analysts pointed to as the North Star of accuracy turned out to be a spinning weather vane. And in the absence of a left-wing media echo chamber to take up its cause, the NARAL ad—and its criticisms of Roberts—became a striking casualty of an unbalanced media playing field.