Atlanta-based TV commentator Ben Swann is used to seeing his work recycled. Early in his career, in New Mexico, he racked up awards for spot news reporting. After President Obama took office, he launched a video series called "Reality Check," the sort of behind-the-news feature that assures his audience that they are being rescued from the lies of the day.
The twist: Swann is an extremely skeptical libertarian.
The market was not exactly flooded with square-jawed TV hosts defending former congressman Ron Paul's presidential campaign from attacks or running segments about genetically modified food. In 2013, he filmed a short independent documentary about the "Rethink 9/11" campaign in New York, which had bought a billboard to drum up support for a fresh investigation into the collapse of the 7 World Trade Center building. In an interview with Luke Rudkowksi, a video journalist best known for trying to get politicians on camera talking about 9/11 or the assorted theories that powerful people conspire to rule the world, Swann admitted that the video could hurt him.
"In the liberty campaign, there's this mystique -- don't talk about 9/11," said Rudkowski.
"Probably the people we got the most pushback from were libertarians, who said: Hey, don't talk about this. You'll look like you're crazy," said Swann. "Everybody who asks those questions gets smeared. All of a sudden, you're a truther."
The bill came due Wednesday afternoon, when the New York Times's Maggie Haberman spotlighted Swann's cameo in an ad by the pro-Jeb Bush super PAC Right to Rise. Swann's October "Fact Check" segment on Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio's voting record in the U.S. Senate was the one RTR used to quickly explain his absences. Matter-of-factly, Haberman noted that Swann had "examined questions about whether 7 World Trade Center could have collapsed as authorities said it did, and allegations that the gunman in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings didn’t act alone."
Swann told The Washington Post that he did not receive a request for comment until the post went up, which was earlier than anyone involved in the story had expected it to.
"It's a shame the New York Times did not bother to contact me prior to publishing the article and that the Rubio campaign felt the need to attack me personally rather than address the Senator’s voting record, which any journalist can look up as part of the Congressional record," Swann said in an email.
But just the whiff of "9/11 trutherism" pulled Rubio's campaign into the fray. Rubio's rapid response pro, Joe Pounder, cited it as more proof of Bush's desperation.
— Joe Pounder (@PounderFile) January 13, 2016
Here was an ad hominem attack, defined. No one had disputed Swann's "Reality Check" segment — and no one was really explaining how he talked about conspiracy theories. Consistently, he has explored them as a reporter, asking why other people are asking questions. He is as likely to debunk the questions as to leave them open.
The Sandy Hook reporting was a case in point. The most virulent conspiracy theory about the 2012 shootings -- the one usually associated with the phrase "Sandy Hook truther" -- is that it was a "false flag" attack, an attempt to move public opinion and allow President Obama to ram through gun safety laws. The wildest theories posit that "crisis actors" were hired to portray parents and relatives grieving for their children, and that no one died at all.
As Haberman reported, Swann never said any of that. His online "Full Disclosure" series noted that theorists had been bubbling over with questions about the Sandy Hook and Aurora shootings, and that "police have not yet provided the surveillance video" of either incident. The conspiracy theory was the hook -- one that few reporters would start with -- but Swann was using it to ask about transparency.
What was remarkable about Swann's insta-infamy is that he had been reporting like this for years -- and at least one of the people now ringing alarms about him had cited that reporting. After Swann saw his reputation battered on Twitter, he noticed that Pounder, in his old role at the oppo shop America Rising, had promoted his work at least twice. As a segment on Ohio's Fox 19, "Reality Check" seemed perfectly acceptable as a source.
Cincinnati Fox 19: “Reality Check Exclusive: Cincinnati agent giving orders in IRS scandal?” http://t.co/lYTquMto0u
— Joe Pounder (@PounderFile) May 22, 2013
Before that, Pounder cited a short interview that Swann, as a swing state TV host, got with Obama. He had used it to get the president on camera talking -- in 2012 -- about the "kill list" of terror targets and whether the United States was funding terrorism by funding the Syrian opposition.
Cincinnati Fox has an epic take down of Obama on national security leaks and kill list in interview with Obama http://t.co/64WSIgdx
— Joe Pounder (@PounderFile) September 5, 2012
The interview, which Swann fact-checked over several segments, lasted just seven minutes and saw the president trying to evade unexpectedly pointed questions.
In 2012, when those sorts of questions were damaging to the president, it did not matter that Swann was a libertarian-leaning reporter who would check into oddball theories instead of quickly dismissing them. In 2016, with Rubio under attack, this began to matter a great deal.