BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Ah me, another August, another presidential campaign, another bestseller attacking the Democrat. Think back to 2004, when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's book, "Unfit for Command" painted Senator John Kerry as a liar who had fabricated his own war record.
Now it's "The Obama Nation," written by Jerome Corsi, one of the co-authors of "Unfit," that tops The New York Times Bestseller list. Like the previous book, it contains incendiary charges, in this case that Obama is a radical with links to Islam. But here's where the parallel storylines diverge. The Swift Boat story had plenty of time to damage Kerry's campaign before it was debunked. "The Obama Nation," by contrast, has been bashed from the start as little more than lies and innuendo.
So what's changed? Eric Boehlert, senior fellow at the liberal Media Matters for America, says there are two reasons the book hasn't made the same splash. One, which we'll get to in a minute, is that the media landscape has changed. The other is that liberal watchdogs, like Media Matters, learned from the Swift boat affair. ERIC BOEHLERT: And they sort of vowed [LAUGHS], you know, in this melodramatic Gone With the Wind moment, you know, never to let it happen again. And so, we have new platforms, we have new voices and we have new infrastructure to make sure it didn't happen again.
And, I mean, Media Matters literally fact-checked every page of this book almost on the day it hit bookstores. And I think it really put a blanket on the book and on Corsi and let the press know look, this is not a legitimate book, he's not a legitimate author. So the press is on notice this time. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it wasn't just groups like Media Matters. It was the campaign itself. You didn't have, in the Obama campaign, the kind of Hamlet-like agonizing over dignifying things with a response that you had in the Kerry campaign. ERIC BOEHLERT: Frankly, the Kerry campaign was naive. They thought the press was going to do the fact-checking when it came to the Swift Boat. And, unfortunately, they paid a pretty stiff penalty for that naiveté.
So the Obama campaign learned from that. They issued a 40-page document last week. And this time the press did not get sort of sucked into it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: When we get to the other big change that you mention, the media market, what we're really talking about is the fact that Fox News doesn't dominate cable news the way that it used to. ERIC BOEHLERT: No. If you go to summer of 2004, Fox News was really at the pinnacle still of its rating dominance. MSNBC and CNN were still very much following in Fox wake. They didn't want to be seen being left behind. So when Fox News had John O'Neill, the Swift Boat author, on night after night after night — BROOKE GLADSTONE: John O'Neill, as you say, was co-author of the Swift Boat book, with Jerome Corsi. ERIC BOEHLERT: Sure. Eventually CNN and MSNBC sort of jumped in as well. If you fast-forward four years, Fox is no longer the dominant ratings champ.
In fact, CNN was the ratings champ in the first quarter of 2008, the first time anyone has done that since 9/11. And CNN and MSNBC, particularly in campaign coverage, I think, have realized we don't have to follow Fox. They don't set the narrative. And, in fact, when they produce a smear campaign like this, we're going to fact check and we're going to be the counter balance.
And that's what we saw when Corsi had been on Fox several nights, and was given an unobstructed platform to talk about, you know, allegations he wanted to float about Barack Obama. And then his first appearance on MSNBC a couple of days later, and anchor Contessa Brewer sort of really put him on notice. CONTESSA BREWER: You say it's a comprehensive look, and yet there are already online bloggers that are going through this book page by page and picking apart what they see as factual errors. So if they're going through and they're finding all of these factual errors in your book — JEROME CORSI: Well, let's — CONTESSA BREWER: — why should we give you the credibility? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's talk about the journalists then, those 24-hour cable news shows, and the newspapers that in 2004 claimed to be taking the "high road" by not taking sides. Why did that position change? Surely it's not just about the fading dominance of Fox News. ERIC BOEHLERT: Well, I think there is sort of some collective penance going on here. I think the press realized that they did fail in a miserable way in terms of the Swift Boat coverage.
Look, Len Downey, who was then executive editor of The Washington Post, was asked in 2004 about the Swift Boat coverage. And he basically said, “Look, we're not judging anybody. We're not judging the Kerry campaign, we're not judging the Swift Boat accusers. We're just putting facts in the newspaper.”
And excuse me, if you're in the middle of a presidential campaign and there's a well-funded, well-orchestrated smear campaign launched, it's up to the press to, you know, look at the credibility of the people making the charges. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm just wondering, if the political balance changes again, and with the infrastructure shifting perhaps to the progressive side, will we see the emergence of these same cozy havens, like Fox, given to - liberal liars — ERIC BOEHLERT: [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: — the same way they've been given to conservative liars? ERIC BOEHLERT: It's possible. Critics on the right say, “Well, MSNBC is just like Fox, they're no different. Their prime time lineup leans to one direction. ”
We are eons from, trust me, in terms of MSNBC ever mirroring or adopting the Fox News blueprint for news and blueprint for propaganda, frankly. In theory it's possible, but we don't see any clues of it on the horizon as of right now. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric, thank you so much. ERIC BOEHLERT: Okay, good luck with it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric Boehlert is senior fellow at Media Matters for America, and the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."