The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, May 16, 2004

Opposition research and the journalist

Atlantic Monthly has a useful piece by Joshua Green on the not-so-gentle art of oppo: digging the dirt on one's political opponent and using it to paint unflattering pictures.

Green says, quoting Barbara Comstock, GOP oppo merchant, that
Contrary to the popular impression that campaigns traffic mainly in sleaze and rumor (though this occurs too)...[t]he goal is not to spread untruths but to have journalists repeat a selective - and often deeply misleading - version of the truth. "We become a conduit," Comstock says. "We do the legwork for the reporter. Obviously, in doing it we tell a story from the Republican side."

I suspect a Rummy twinkle as she said it.

He does underline a point made here several times before: that merely because a fact is in the public domain - freely available online, even - does not mean it is part of the acquis of information which the media take into account in their product. Like medieval objects buried under the soil, they exist but count only when dug up.

The role of the journo is critical:
Maligning an opponent, even with his own words and deeds, is a tricky business; voters take a dim view of "negative" politics, and are liable to punish the campaign carrying out the attacks rather than the intended target.

Never fear, your friendly hack is here!

And the conduit of choice is none other than our old friend, the Associated Press, noted here as, inter alia, the bugbear of Upton Sinclair and employer of Nedra Pickler:
No single outlet is as valuable in merchandising campaign stories as the Associated Press. "If you want the biggest bang for the buck, you get it in the AP," an experienced Democratic operative says. "They have fifteen hundred plus subscribers, so you get them to run it, and it runs everywhere. It's also easier, because AP doesn't have the same space limitations as the other outlets. They're running thirty stories a day on politics. And if they break it, the thinking is that it must be important and worth covering."

It may cross you mind to wonder whether the hacks at AP, or other outlets used for the purpose, don't bridle at being used to allow pols to spread dirt without comeback. But it can't be a hard decision: get a juicy story or risk being cut out. A textbook no-brainer.

(AP's stenography, faithfully reporting his inconsistent claims, was a key component in Joseph McCarthy's spectacular rise to notoriety. Plus ├ža change...)

There are, that I can see, no quotes from journalists in the piece. (Were any sought, I wonder?)

None of this is new, of course [1]. But it's useful to have the evidence to hand for the next time the Censer of Sanctimony swings from the hand of some editor or hack.

(Green's piece is refreshingly well-stocked with attributed quotes, which immediately prejudices me in its favour!)

  1. The piece references a BBC Panorama documentary from October 22 2000 - of which a transcript is online.

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