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Red truth, blue truth

By NANCY GIBBS

Which world did you watch last week?

Do you live in the world where President Bush, whose bold wartime leadership has made America safer, survived an ambush from that liberal lion Dan Rather, who tried to swing the race with a bunch of phony documents trashing Bush's National Guard service, only to have the charges blow up in his face?

Or do you live in the world where Rather, the Tiffany network's honored heir to Walter Cronkite, spoke truth to power, made a true if perhaps flawed case that Bush shirked his duty more than 30 years ago, and is by implication unfit to serve as Commander in Chief today?

Red Truth holds that Rather has at last taken his place alongside other disgraced liberal icons, who have recklessly disregarded the standards of journalism to try to bring this President down.

Blue Truth sees Rathergate as a sideshow; the problem with the mainstream media is not that they are biased but that they are lazy and have given Bush a free pass from the start. Red Truth looks at Bush and sees a savior; Blue Truth sees a zealot who must be stopped. In both worlds there are no accidents, only conspiracies, and facts have value only to the extent that they support the Truth.

This is where we live now, and where the final battles of this campaign will be fought. Anyone can carry a weapon. The traditional heralds compete with the authors and bloggers and filmmakers and cable barkers and radio rabble-rousers who appeal to those who tailor the news to fit their political niche. Campaign-finance reform has changed the channels through which the money moves, restricting fund raising by the candidates but filling the war chests of allied guerrillas.

Above all, the stakes of the outcome seem to change the rules. If you believe that your children's safety depends on the right guy winning, what tactics can possibly be out of bounds, and what scruples political or intellectual or legal or journalistic are more important than ultimate victory? Delighted Bush backers could only savor the satisfaction that of all the media titans it was Dan Rather who had been humbled: he who had famously tangled with Bush's father during the 1988 campaign, had ingratiatingly interviewed Saddam Hussein during the walk-up to the war and had been the featured speaker at a 2001 Texas Democratic fund raiser (even if he did apologize later), and whom his colleague Andy Rooney describes as "transparently liberal."

Within hours of the 60 Minutes broadcast Sept. 8, skeptical bloggers were spitting challenges to the authenticity of the CBS documents on Internet sites like freerepublic.com and powerlineblog.com. No typewriter in 1972, the Netizens argued, could have produced those papers, which alleged that Bush violated orders to take a physical and that his superiors were pressed to "sugarcoat" his evaluation.

Delighted Bush backers could only savor the satisfaction that of all the media titans it was Dan Rather who had been humbled: he who had famously tangled with Bush's father during the 1988 campaign, had ingratiatingly interviewed Saddam Hussein during the walk-up to the war and had been the featured speaker at a 2001 Texas Democratic fund raiser (even if he did apologize later), and whom his colleague Andy Rooney describes as "transparently liberal."

Within hours of the 60 Minutes broadcast Sept. 8, skeptical bloggers were spitting challenges to the authenticity of the CBS documents on Internet sites like freerepublic.com and powerlineblog.com. No typewriter in 1972, the Netizens argued, could have produced those papers, which alleged that Bush violated orders to take a physical and that his superiors were pressed to "sugarcoat" his evaluation.

Though many mainstream papers ran CBS's charges essentially unchallenged on their front pages the next morning, their reporters were also catching the blowback from the bloggers. By day's end Fox News, the A.P. and ABC News had called the CBS story into question. Before long White House spokesman Scott McClellan would suggest that the documents might have been leaked by Democrats, and California Republican Congressman Christopher Cox was calling for an investigation.

For his part, Rather not only defended his reporting but also questioned the motives of those who challenged him, telling USA Today that a "thick partisan fogging machine seeks to cloud the core truth of our story." He denied any political leanings and cast the controversy as a Red Truth jihad.

"People who are so passionately partisan, politically or ideologically committed, basically say, 'Because he won't report it our way, we're going to ... check him out of existence if we can. If not, make him feel great pain.'" But under the combined weight of various challenges to the memos, the network eventually said it would investigate their authenticity.

John Kerry supporters were so frustrated at the turn of events, they could only suggest this must somehow be the work of Bush's Dr. Evil, Karl Rove. How could their guy, a decorated war hero, have dropped in the polls after being slimed for a month by unsubstantiated charges about his Vietnam record, while Bush, who has never fully answered questions about whether he performed his duties during five years in the Air National Guard, looked as if he would escape any damage just because CBS had screwed up its fact checking?

On the very day of the CBS broadcast, a group called Texans for Truth unveiled its AWOL ad claiming that Bush never even showed up for the Alabama unit he transferred to in 1972; the Democratic National Committee released the video Operation: Fortunate Son, which details the ways in which Bush allegedly received preferential treatment.

Now it looked as if Bush had been vaccinated, even if other records supported the substance of CBS 's charge. The conspiracy theories were further fueled when the Los Angeles Times revealed that "Buckhead," the blogger who led the charge, was no phantom font expert but the guy who filed suit to have Bill Clinton disbarred in Arkansas during the Monica madness. "If this is a campaign about who did more 30 years ago, we lose," a senior Bush campaign adviser told TIME. "But it's not about that."

The network's mess served members of the Bush campaign beautifully, and not just by taking the focus off the turmoil in Iraq. It fed their story line that they are once again fighting as outsiders. When you control the White House, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, it's a neat trick to act like an underdog.

But to the extent that the Republicans could turn the Liberal Media into the Establishment enemy, liken themselves to Thomas Paine and Martin Luther, nail their charges to the door, distribute their pamphlets, rally their faithful, it was in the interest of giving their base a tyrant to battle. CBS tied its argument up nicely as well when, acknowledging questions about the authenticity of the documents, it said they were true in spirit.

Even the pollsters, with their models and metrics, were at a loss to explain where the race had landed: Gallup had Bush 13 points ahead; the Pew Center and Harris Interactive had a 1-point race. At this moment, meteorologists have an edge when it comes to reliability.

In a sense, the candidates and their parties have only themselves to blame for the challenges they face and the power they have lost as they try to navigate this new landscape. Certainly, technology made it possible to nationalize the sense of community, help people find political soul mates and search for their personal truths online; but the political class also helped peel people apart. Both parties redrew districts to be more politically homogeneous, marginalized their centrists, elevated their flamethrowers, viewed with suspicion anyone who sounded temperate or reached across the aisle.

At the same time, the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which ended mandatory balanced coverage of politics, gave birth to talk radio, and the television universe splintered between the old networks and the new culture of cable gladiators in which opinion was more entertaining than information and cheaper to produce as well. In the face of the passionate partisan fights over President Clinton's impeachment and the 2000 Florida recount, it was no wonder people sought refuge in a section of the infosphere where certainty was possible.

Meanwhile, the 2002 McCain-Feingold law dramatically changed the way money flowed into the system and whom it flowed to. With candidates restricted to maximum donations of $2,000 from individuals and with parties no longer allowed to accept unlimited tubs of soft money, the supposedly independent 527 committees like the left-wing MoveOn Voter Fund and the Kerry-bashing Swift Boat Veterans for Truth entered the message-management game playing by their own set of rules.

Together, these 527 groups have raised more than $240 million. Their ads have been edgier, uglier and arguably more effective than anything the candidates or parties have unleashed in years. Some, like the attacks on the candidates' military records, show real people testifying to the candidates' flaws in a kind of mockumentary style that further blurs the truth.

When MoveOn debuted its latest ad last week, the two sides instantly fought over its message. In the TV spot, a soldier holds his rifle above his head as he sinks up to his chest in the desert quicksands; a narrator remarks, "George Bush got us into this quagmire. It will take a new President to get us out." Bob Dole, who chairs Bush's veterans coalition, charged that "depicting an American soldier in effect surrendering in the battle against the terrorists is beyond the pale." MoveOn officials insisted that the soldier was not surrendering and that the ad was designed to highlight a deteriorating situation that the Administration has denied.

Thus do the most important issues unfold, not just across the gray pages of the serious papers but in a foaming free-for-all in which every charge, however fair or false, gets BlackBerried and instant messaged in a Darwinian democracy of ideas. At a rally in Huntington, W.Va., last week, 3-year-old Sophia Parlock dissolved into tears after having her Bush-Cheney sign torn up by Kerry-Edwards supporters.

The picture was mailed out by the Republican National Committee after conservative Matt Drudge spotted a wire photo. The Democrats meanwhile sent around the story of a Gold Star mother, whose son was killed in Iraq, being arrested at a Laura Bush speech in Hamilton, N.J., when she tried to interrupt the First Lady.

As for that little girl with the sign, the Democratic Underground posted a story claiming that her father is a Bush campaign operative who used his child to create a partisan photo op, having done the same with a different kid four years ago against Al Gore. No incident is too small to produce its own parallel truths. And the party e-mail lists make sure that these truths make their way into every Red or Blue mailbox.

In the past few weeks, as Bush moved into the lead for the first time in months, his home-field advantage became clear. Conservatives say that, of necessity, they learned long ago how to transmit their message below the radar of the mainstream media, academia and Hollywood.

They became the masters of direct mail, which helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, and their next wave of messagemakers was much quicker to understand the power of talk radio, cable and blogs. Until the week of the Republican Convention, it had been three years since Bush had talked to the Washington Post or the New York Times. In his 3 1/2 years in office, he has given 15 press conferences, the fewest of any President in 50 years. But he has talked to Rush Limbaugh, and he's scheduled to appear on the O'Reilly Factor this week.

While leery of the old media, this White House is expert at narrowcasting to the new. From the Amish to snowmobile users to stockcar-racing fans, the Bush coalitions are sliced like Bible leaves and addressed according to their specific priorities.

Aiming to strengthen his socially conservative base, Bush in May sat down with a handful of journalists from religious media to discuss his opposition to abortion and gay marriage. The transcript of that long interview, even the fact that it was happening at all, was not released to the mainstream White House press corps. In May the campaign released a Web ad featuring Laura Bush talking about education, which ran on 60 sites, including cookinglight.com.

The campaign also keeps a close eye on the blogs, using them, just as it uses Limbaugh, to mainline information to the G.O.P. faithful. "Blogs are what talk radio was a few years ago," says Bush campaign communications director Nicole Devenish. Her staff members regularly write, along with the message for the talk-radio circuit, the one that will go out to blogs and websites that link to the Bush campaign site.

Bush staff members rely on technorati.com and truthlaidbear.com, which track political blogs and websites to see what items in local papers, on websites and in blogs are getting the most hits. "If a story moves up through the rankings and linking, we can know," says one of the Bush staff members assigned to alert the rest of the team about which stories are moving through the blogosphere. "We can get indicators about stories before they break elsewhere. It's like an early-warning system."

That attention has proved fruitful, since blogs are where some of the most powerful if picayune attacks on Kerry have taken hold. When Kerry put Swiss cheese rather than the traditional Cheez Whiz on his Philly Cheese Steak last year in Philadelphia and last month in Green Bay, Wis., called the famous Packer stadium "Lambert Field" instead of Lambeau Field, the bloggers lampooned him for being out of touch. Does this matter? The Washington Post wrote off Kerry's chances in the key swing state of Wisconsin because his slip was "akin to calling the Yankees the Yankers or the Chicago Bulls the Bells."

While Republicans have relied on the Internet to spread a message, Democrats have focused more on the Net's power to raise money. One of the great anomalies of American politics was that Republicans could always count on many small donors, while Democrats depended on a few big sponsors.

Back in the days of Barry Goldwater, his movement had more than 650,000 individual donors, compared with 22,000 for John F. Kennedy in 1960. Campaign-finance reform, however, meant that Democrats would need to broaden their donor base fast. The party claims to have quadrupled its small-donor base since the last election. MoveOn's 527 committee has been able to spend more than $17 million this cycle not bad for a group that didn't exist seven years ago.

But some Kerry advisers think he has missed an opportunity to rally voters to his cause using the Net. "I don't think this campaign really understands the new technology," says one. "Yes, they raised money with it, but they don't see it as an organizational tool." The reason, he says, is that the team still steers by the stars of the New York Times and the TV networks. Senior adviser Mike McCurry reads the Daily Kos and a few other blogs, but most Kerry aides don't and instead rely on one staff member to provide an overnight summary. The Internet is not their medium. "It's not where they live. It's not how they talk to each other," says the adviser. "The Kerry camp hasn't moved. It's where campaigns were 20 years ago. They are going to do it the way they did it in '88 for Michael Dukakis. They are going to do it on TV, but broadcast television is damned near irrelevant for the rest of the cycle. Things move too fast now."

That failure is strange because the Democrats have seen the changes coming from a long way off. It was Clinton, after all, who played the sax on Arsenio and talked about his underwear on MTV. The Democrats invented the war room, having learned from the evisceration of Dukakis that every attack must be answered.

In some ways, Kerry's team has adapted to the new world. When rumors of an affair with an intern swirled last February, Kerry followed the cardinal rule: Don't elevate rumors into a story in the mainstream press. He went on Don Imus' radio show to deny them, and they faded away.

But the events of August suggested that Kerry's team was not yet quick or smart enough. Unlike in February, when Kerry was less well known, by August the Bush team had constructed a cartoon narrative of Kerry as a phony, unprincipled opportunist.

When the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched its ads claiming that Kerry had embellished his war record, the accusations fell on fertile soil. Quite apart from Red America, in the purple enclaves of Missouri and Ohio, there were plenty of voters who would hear the charges on cable or online and believe there was something to them. Only 29% of voters in last week's New York Times/CBS poll think Kerry is telling the entire truth about his Vietnam service, and 49% think he's mostly truthful but hiding something.

But back in the Blue World the Kerry team inhabited, the "larger truth" was that it was outrageous for a President and a Vice President who supported the Vietnam War but didn't fight in it to stand by while their surrogates questioned Kerry's service. Even if the charges were coming from an independent group of veterans, the Kerry camp thought it could rely on the mainstream media to police the situation and inform voters that they were false. Kerry adviser Bob Shrum, says a Democratic strategist, "kept telling Kerry over and over, 'We don't need to respond. It's only a $170,000 ad buy. Nobody will hear it.'"

But Shrum was assuming that the old order was still in place, not realizing that old media and their insurgent competitors are locked in an asymmetrical conflict, with one set of outlets following the traditional conventions of neutrality and balanced coverage and the other not.

So when the talk shows began covering the charges, they adhered to those conventions and gave equal time to those leveling the attacks and the Kerry representatives disputing them. "Every credible news organization knocked down their allegations," moans a Democratic strategist as if that mattered.

"They didn't understand what was going on," Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi says of the Kerry team. "It was almost like, 'That's not true, so we don't need to respond.' That's the trap they fell into. They just got the big wake-up call that it doesn't work that way anymore."

The blue armies do have some advantages. Among the most potent weapons for Blue Truth, conservatives admit, have been documentaries. As a political force, notes Richard Viguerie, the godfather of direct mail, "that didn't exist four years ago. I had two meetings on that very issue this week. I feel conservatives do a lot of things well, but movies are not on that list."

Among recent Blue Truth films are Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election, which replays the controversy over the Florida recount, and Uncovered: The Whole Truth of the Iraq War. Both are produced by Robert Greenwald, whose Outfoxed film, a critical look at Fox News, sold 100,000 DVDs this summer. Meanwhile, MoveOn enlists actors like Martin Sheen and Matt Damon to sell its message. One marketing survey found that 40% of 18- to 24-year-olds said celebrity endorsements would influence their vote.

Still, Kerry has had to tread carefully around "allies" like filmmaker Michael Moore. Since supporting so controversial a figure could have cost him among independents, Kerry took to telling reporters who asked about Moore's incendiary anti-Bush documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, that he didn't need to see it because he had been living the past four years.

While any help is welcome, Kerry aides avoid talking to friends at the 527s for fear of looking as if they are coordinating their efforts, which is illegal, and so have no control over flammable ads or the whack-a-Bush online games that they fear could backfire and alienate the middle. In January, MoveOn supporters submitted an ad to its site comparing Bush to Hitler, which the Kerry campaign quickly condemned. Now MoveOn cofounder Wes Boyd says he bends over backward to see beyond the base. "It's a very centrist country," Boyd says.

The Kerry campaign says it has awakened. "We now have a pretty aggressive team that's out there watching what they do and pushing back," says Joe Lockhart, the former Clinton White House press secretary who joined the Kerry campaign a few weeks ago. The team still has time. In 2000, 14% of voters said they decided which presidential candidate to vote for only in the final two weeks of the campaign; 5%, enough to swing most elections, decided the day they voted.

But it is also true that four years ago, many said it didn't matter who won. Voters live in a different world now, a much scarier one in which uncertainty is uncomfortable.

While there are still those who call themselves independent, prefer their news straight and have not decided whom to vote for, they may not be the target audience in this race.

If Rove is right, the race will turn on which campaign has done a better job of finding its true believers, inspiring them with a stirring message and getting every last one to the polls on Election Day.

 Reported by Perry Bacon Jr., Matthew Cooper, John F. Dickerson, Michael Duffy, Viveca Novak and Karen Tumulty/Washington and David Bjerklie/New York



Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

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