Once upon a time, in early 2004, I attended one of hundreds of "Parties for the President" organized nationwide for grassroots volunteers who wanted to help reelected George W. Bush, at a modest middle class home in Portland, Oregon. At one point, a nice old lady politely pressed into my hand a grubby little self-published pamphlet she had come upon, purporting to prove that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had faked the heroics that had won him three purple hearts in Vietnam. I added it to my mental store of the night's absurdities that I expected to hear rattling across the wingnutosphere the entire fall: "I still believe there are weapons of mass destruction"; "There is an agenda—to get rid of God in this country"; "John Kerry attended a party in which there was bad language!" What I didn't expect was to see Kerry's war-hero cred earnestly debated night after night on CNN. Then came August and "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" — and that little old lady's fever dream began dominating the media discussion of the campaign, and the rest, as they say, is history.
That's the way, in my experience, the ecology of right-wing smears works: Insane horror stories – Clinton is running cocaine out of an Arkansas airport! Barack Obama had gay sex in the back of a limo! – bubble up from the collective conservative Id at the outset of an election year; professional conservatives in Washington identify the ones that seem most promising and launder them through the suckers in the "balance"-hungry mainstream media; and presto, before you know it, it's death-panel-palooza, 24/7.
Responsible political reporting, of course, would seek to penetrate this process while it's going on.