By Zachary Roth

What was ABC News smoking? That’s what a lot of people (including Mickey Kaus) are asking today after the network last night aired a piece on Howard Dean that was little more than a smear.

Here’s the gist of the story, which ran nationwide on “World News Tonight”: In May 1997, then-Governor Howard Dean submitted an affidavit in the custody hearing of Dennis Madore, a Vermont state trooper who headed Governor Dean’s security detail. Dean, who filed the affidavit at the request of Madore’s lawyer, a close friend, described Madore as “a firm but gentle disciplinarian” and “a wonderful parent.”

A week later, Dean received a call from Maggie Benson, a Dean supporter and a friend of Madore’s wife, Donna. According to ABC, Benson told Dean that “Dennis Madore was an unfit parent and that Dean could damage himself politically by being involved.” Dean hung up on her.

In August 2000, state police opened an investigation into domestic abuse allegations brought by Donna Madore against her ex-husband. The next month, Dennis Madore was removed from the Governor’s security detail because of the investigation. Three months later, he was fired for having “engaged in acts of domestic violence during the course of his marriage.”

Though Dennis Madore’s lawyer was made aware of the abuse allegations in 1997, ABC presented no evidence that Dean knew about them before the state’s investigation began. Indeed, Dennis Madore tells ABC that he believes he would have been fired had Dean known.

Am I missing something here? Was there some key piece of even vaguely damaging information that I missed in the story? Nope. That’s it. That’s the story that ABC put on its primetime news broadcast, with the dramatic, Watergate-referencing sub-title: “What did [Dean] know about abuse allegations; when did he know it?”

People watching television don’t always focus. I happened to see this piece while watching the news in the same casual way - tired after a long day at work, distracted, walking back and forth between the couch and the fridge, vaguely wondering whether I would rather be watching “The Simpsons” - that most people watch the news. In that state, I caught just enough to register:

“Howard Dean … some guy who worked for him … domestic abuse.”

Hmmm, I thought. That doesn’t sound good. The spot functioned for me in the same subliminal way that advertising operates: On some level it contributed to a perception of Howard Dean as dishonest. It wasn’t until I got into work today and read the transcript that I realized how absurd the story was. Of course few viewers exposed to the piece bothered to look closer at the story (and who can blame them — I’m paid to do this!)
That’s how these stories do their damage.

ABC News ran a potentially destructive story that had no substance as news whatsoever. Which is exactly why people don’t trust the news media in the first place.

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.