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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

No Coincidence

Opposition Research, Politics and the Press

Richard Blumenthal’s problems prove one of my cardinal rules of politics – there is no such thing as a coincidence. You look deeply enough and you’ll find a reasonable explanation, not a coincidence, for everything. Blumenthal is the attorney general of Connecticut and, before the New York Times exposed his – to say the least – inconsistent statements about his Marine Corps service during the Vietnam era, he was also the front runner to replace retiring Sen. Chris Dodd in the U.S. Senate.

But Blumenthal’s still unfolding story is about more than just another politician not being square about his military service. His story is also a rare and fascinating glimpse behind the veil of secrecy that, more times than you might think, finds reporters and news organizations serving as the willing conduits for information/dirt/scandal that one political camp wants to dish on another.

It was no coincidence that the story about Blumenthal’s apparent embellishment of his military record hit just before the state’s political nominating conventions and at a moment when he appeared to be on a smooth glide path to election in the fall. The story of a politician imploding that appears on the front page of the Times is about as big a body blow as you can imagine for a candidate, particularly if that candidate is a Democrat. The Bluemental story went national instantly and with all the mainstream credibility that goes with a story where the venerable Times takes down a liberal. Its hard to think the story would have had as much impact had it originated in, say, the Hartford Courant. An immediate Rasmussen survey showed that the Times story had dramatically tightened the Connecticut race.

It was also no coincidence that Blumenthal’s GOP opponent in the November election, multi-millionaire Linda McMahon, helped the Times explore the essence of Blumenthal’s exaggerations based upon McMahon’s own opposition research. While it is still unclear how exclusively the Times relied upon the work of Blumenthal’s opponents to try and bring him down, it is not in doubt that McMahon’s campaign had a role. They actually bragged about it. Times’ editors, meanwhile, defend the handling of the story and insist it didn’t originate with McMahon’s campaign, but don’t explain precisely how they came to investigate the story. Blumenthal defenders quickly hit back, with Howard Dean calling the Times story a “hatchet job” because the paper relied upon information from an opposing campaign. The hubris of Blumenthal’s opponent actually admitting to playing a role in advancing the story is fascinating since it violated the unwritten rule about such things. Political operatives and reporters engage in the dance for information all the time but rarely, if ever, let the rest of us in on the details. Ironically, the bragging by McMahon’s campaign also tended to dampen the impact of what Blumenthal has done.

Consider all this the journalistic version of the Mafia’s code of silence. Reporters take tips and research from political operatives all the time, but it is considered truly bad form to admit that it happens. This delicate dance is part of the little understood symbiotic relationship among reporters, politicians and their operatives who constantly engage in the trading of information. Information, like the fact that a candidate hasn’t been square about his military service or had a business deal go bad, is particularly valuable to reporters when an election roles around and a opposing campaign has the financial ability to fund deep and broad opposition research. It’s like adding a research bureau to the newsroom.

Closer to home, I have no idea – only my belief in no coincidence – about why and how the relentless barrage of stories have surfaced over the last month about the various missteps of Idaho congressional candidate Vaughn Ward. It violates my rule to believe the stories are mere coincidence.

Clearly some of the stories – Puerto Rico is a country, for example, not a U.S. Commonwealth – were driven by Ward’s own words. But with all due respect to the Idaho reporters who broke other stories about Ward’s failure to pay taxes, failure to vote in 2008, failure to acknowledge – or at least see the irony – in his wife taking home a paycheck from Fannie Mae while he was bashing bank bailouts, that he cribbed from other candidates websites to flesh out his own positions, that he misfiled his financial disclosure form, that he violated Marine Corps rules about using his military standing in his ads and that he borrowed a pick-up truck for his first TV ad – did I miss something – its impossible to believe all that information was merely the result of old fashioned, hard-work reporting…or coincidence.

We all know newsrooms are in steep decline. Reporters and news organizations have fewer resources and less time than ever to pursue stories, particularly stories that take time and may – and often do – result in nothing more than arriving at a dead end. This environment makes opposition research even more valuable for news organizations and makes it all the more important that news consumers understand how the game is played.

A few weeks ago, John Miller of the Associated Press filed a fascinating story – no coincidence – that Idaho campaigns are becoming better and better at opposition research. Miller noted that reporters often get a call that starts with something like: “hey, did you hear about…”

So, with these caveats – Blumenthal has some serious explaining to do, each of the Ward stories is legit and helps explain the character of a major candidate and there is nothing wrong with reporters getting tips from anyone – I offer three rules to guide future reading of such stories.

  1. Money pays for research. McMahon’s campaign in Connecticut is self-funded – she says she’ll spend $34 million on the race – with the millions she made from professional wrestling. And, again no coincidence, national Democrats have more money than Republicans so far in this election cycle. By definition, that means more money for opposition research on candidates like, say, Vaughn Ward. Well-funded campaigns tend to do the most complete job of researching their opponents – no coincidence.

  1. Reporters make use of this kind of information – oppo research – all the time and almost never with any hint of where it came from. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps, but it does raise questions of motive and benefit. Next time you see a story along these lines, ask yourself who stands to benefit the most from having the story reported? Who has a motive for getting the story out? And, remember no coincidences.

  1. Finally, as Harry Truman famously said, if you can’t stand the heat leave the kitchen. Politics is a contact sport. Life – political life, especially – ain’t fair. If you have skeletons in that closet, they’ll be rattled. Reporting the shortcomings in political resumes is what reporters do. With respect to Sarah Palin’s stumping for Ward in Boise this week, as she calls it, the “lamestream media” reports what it can stumble upon and also what it is served on a silver platter and that, too, is no coincidence.

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