By Peter Daou
I'm having PTSD.
No, not from my war years in Beirut (I survived that) but from my time in John Kerry's war room in 2004, where I witnessed a brazen and shameful attack perpetrated against a decorated veteran's military service. That attack was aided and abetted by the national media, who helped usher "swiftboating" into the political lexicon.
One of those media offenders was CNN's Wolf Blitzer, the same Wolf Blitzer who just spent an entire segment discussing with a Republican guest whether Hillary Clinton had committed a felony or a misdemeanor by using a private email server. This, without a single allegation of criminality or a scintilla of evidence supporting those claims.
Blitzer follows in the footsteps of the New York Times and other major media outlets, whose pathological need to bring down the most popular and powerful woman in American politics has undermined any claim to real journalism in the 2016 race. Another egregious example is Bob Woodward on MSNBC's Morning Joe comparing Hillary's emails to Watergate.
The irresponsibility and journalistic turpitude of speculating about criminal charges where none exist boggles the mind. Imagine pondering on the air what charges Jeb Bush would face if he shot someone. On what grounds and by which standards does Blitzer allow an unfettered discussion of a felony by Hillary Clinton? This is not reporting facts, it is hardly reporting at all, it is indoctrinating the public by innuendo. It is smearing Hillary's image by planting negative thoughts in the minds of voters.
I have no idea where the email story goes, nor do the media, but that is irrelevant in this context. As I wrote recently:
Hillary herself has acknowledged that in hindsight it would have been better to separate her personal and work emails. Sincere criticism of her decisions as a public official is fair. That doesn’t mean she did anything illegal or unethical. Nor does it excuse the raw partisanship driving this story and the efforts to obfuscate the facts and falsely imply misconduct.
It is categorically wrong for CNN or any responsible media outlet to discuss specific criminal charges against Hillary Clinton without a shred of evidence. But that hasn't stopped them. Our national media are determined to form a blockade against the first woman with a viable shot at the White House. In so doing, they are openly partnering with Karl Rove and other well-funded conservative research groups:
Voters need to understand that what they think they know about Hillary is often the result of sophisticated propaganda techniques, where tightly-crafted talking points are focus-grouped and deployed by shadowy GOP groups then magnified by the mainstream media and pundits.
When I referenced PTSD at the top of this piece, it was less about the media's behavior and more about the lack of a robust defense of Kerry. At the time, the Democratic establishment was in the dark about the strategy and ramifications of swiftboating. In a recent post about the all-out assault on the Clinton Foundation, I described what I learned from my Kerry campaign experience, writing that swiftboating is a commonly referenced but rarely understood phenomenon. It is not just about a partisan attack against a candidate's strengths, but about the interplay of the media with partisan attackers:
Swiftboating is a far more complex process, an intricate interplay between the conservative oppo/attack infrastructure and the mainstream media. In 2004, the Internet was a factor insofar as blogs were a nascent force. Today, social platforms are a mass amplifier that make swiftboating easier and faster.
The Kerry attacks were about planting seeds of doubt about his service. The media’s role was one of legitimation and magnification. Under the rubric of what they believed was justifiable news reporting, the major outlets gave the swift boat attacks the legitimacy they lacked on Free Republic.
The Kerry campaign, Democratic Party, surrogates and supporters failed to hold the media accountable for their role in propagating the attacks against him.
Analogously, it is astonishing that in 2015, with a vast array of digital tools at our disposal, Hillary doesn't have 10,000 supporters immediately expressing outrage at Blitzer's unacceptable segment.
When there are few consequences for misbehavior, that misbehavior will continue. And it will get worse.
The time to fight back is now:
Just as the attacks on the Clinton Foundation laid the groundwork to swiftboat Hillary in a general election, the email story is a set up for 2016. Republican strategists play the long game better than Democrats: they know it takes months for an attack line to mature, for the public to absorb the overarching message, for the frame to set.
The email story is an attack on Hillary’s character, designed to portray her as secretive, untrustworthy and dishonest. I’ve written extensively about the sophisticated tactics used by the likes of Karl Rove and conservative research groups to tarnish Hillary’s public image. They focus group and test narratives and phrases that resonate with the public then use the media to disseminate them.
Tom Watson and I founded #HillaryMen to help Hillary and her campaign smash the gender barrier in U.S. politics by calling out those who perpetuate and reinforce it. We are gratified by the response so far – tens of thousands of shares, emails, site visits – but we know Hillary needs a much bigger digital army and she needs it now.
Hillary cannot directly engage every reporter and every publication when they smear her. Her campaign can't get caught up in endless spats with the press. It is the job of supporters, donors, outside groups, surrogates, and party leaders to build the army of digital defenders that Hillary needs.
There is no time to waste.
Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.