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Who's Guilty of Campaign Dirty Tricks?

January 14, 2008

With the major media under increasing fire for their campaign coverage and exclusion of legitimate candidates from presidential debates, some in the media are trying to divert the public's attention to the question of whether the political campaigns are engaging in "dirty tricks." An ABC 20/20 story claimed this was shaping up as possibly the dirtiest campaign in history.

One of the stories cited by the news network¯the National Enquirer account of Democratic candidate John Edwards allegedly fathering a "love child" out of wedlock¯was denied but not disproven. Despite its reputation as a supermarket tabloid, the National Enquirer is the paper that broke the story, which was confirmed, of Jesse Jackson having an illegitimate child. Hence, the paper's exclusives cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Until this ABC report, the mainstream media had not touched the Edwards story. However, the British newspaper The Daily Mail media ran a story citing Edwards' denial of the affair.

What's more, the "expert" provided by ABC News to supposedly prove the case of campaign dirty tricks turned out to be Larry Sabato, who is hawking a book about changing the U.S. Constitution and whose website advertises himself as "probably the most quoted college professor in the land." His quotation is this case was clearly not warranted.

Citing some minor incidents, such as phone calls, emails and cards sent through the mail to some voters, Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, speculated that 2008 may well go down as one of the dirtiest campaigns in history, "precisely because of these dirty tricks." This is a sensational but false charge.

To make matters worse, ABC reporter Brian Ross suggested that campaigns which expose other candidates' lies and deceptions are somehow engaging in dirty tricks. He cited the cases of Republicans helping expose Al Gore and John Kerry as liars.

One case involved Gore, during a 2000 presidential debate with George W. Bush, making a false claim about flying with then FEMA director James Lee Witt to observe some oil fires in Texas. Ross said Gore had "walked into a trap" when he said that, and strongly implied that it was dirty politics to point out that he was lying. Gore, when confronted with the record, admitted the story was false the next day on Good Morning America. What is dirty about that?

Another example of a supposedly dirty trick against Democrats was when a Republican operative had, in 2004, confidentially given Brian Ross a videotape of an interview with John Kerry from 1971, in which Kerry is seen saying, totally in proper context, that he had given back "six, seven, eight or nine" of his Vietnam medals, though he had been denying that on the campaign trail. Ross said ABC had verified the authenticity of the tape, and put it on the air. He then showed what he described as a "suspicious and angry Kerry" who accused ABC "correctly of using Republican material." But it wasn't Republican material; it was a videotape of a TV show that was given to them by a Republican operative. What is wrong with Republicans exposing Democratic lies?

The real scandal in that story was Kerry's slanderous testimony of what he said his fellow soldiers had done in the war, accusing them of "crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command...." including that "they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam." Those comments were a scandal, and may have cost Kerry any chance of being elected.

Ross equated opposition research, involving the search for information about one's political opponents, with dirty tricks. This is a false comparison.

In another example of so-called "dirty tricks," Ross cited one woman who received push-poll calls, which they defined as anonymous phone calls from people posing as opinion poll takers, in which the caller pushes negative information about certain candidates. He said that the push-poll call "was conspicuous by its absence [of] any reference to Hillary Clinton" and that Hillary's campaign had denied any connection, but that "political experts say she or her supporters are the obvious prime suspects behind the sneaky calls." In fairness, he offered not one shred of evidence to support the charge that the Hillary campaign was behind the calls.

He later pointed to Hillary's campaign firing two volunteers in Iowa last month for forwarding e-mails that said that Barack Obama "was part of a Muslim effort to destroy the United States." The e-mail read in part that "The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the U.S. from the inside..." But it appears the Hillary campaign workers were only sending along messages that had been provided to them.

Ross then cited a story about how someone had sent out a Christmas card in Mitt Romney's name, "extolling the virtues of multiple wives." This was obviously part of a dishonest anti-Romney campaign designed to link him to the controversial practices of some adherents of Mormonism. But it's not clear that it had any significant impact. In fact, it probably backfired.

Other cases cited by Ross involved good old-fashioned opposition research. All of these activities, including the distribution of videos of candidates making contradictory statements, are legitimate.

What makes them possibly illegitimate is when the media focus on them to the exclusion of a serious discussion of substance and issues. The Washington Post, for example, ran a series of stories during the Virginia Senate contest about Republican George Allen getting caught on video using the term "Macaca" to describe a campaign worker for his opponent, Jim Webb. The Post constantly implied, without proof, that this was racist on Allen's part. Allen mishandled the controversy, in part by failing to adequately explain where the mysterious term had come from. In the end, the controversy prevented Allen from talking about legitimate campaign issues and was a major distraction. The coverage had the intended effect, from the point of view of the liberal Post. It helped elect Webb.

The real "dirty tricks" are those performed by the media, such as the banning by Fox News of viable and legitimate candidates in its Sunday night presidential debate. You didn't have to be a Ron Paul supporter to find this exclusion to be arbitrary and wrong. Polls had shown Paul doing better in New Hampshire than Fred Thompson, who was allowed to appear at the Fox debate.

Meanwhile, important issues are getting short shrift, such as Hillary's controversial work in a communist law firm, her involvement in various fundraising scandals, and Obama's link to a national security "expert" who questioned Alger Hiss's guilt as a communist spy.

The media should quit fretting about "dirty politics" and get to the bottom of these growing controversies.

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Copyright ©2008 Cliff Kincaid and Roger Aronoff