What is more sinister, or at least troublesome, is this: With five months to go until November 2, already there have been numerous examples this election season of reporters writing “oppo-grams” into their news stories, sometimes without providing much — if any — context or analysis. To take one example, which Campaign Desk pointed out in March, a story by the Associated Press’s John Solomon bears a strong resemblance to an RNC press release from a few weeks earlier. (Solomon did not respond to an interview request). Democrats have landed hits of their own, of course. For example, the Kerry campaign, in response to an April Bush-Cheney ad asserting that Kerry “repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the War on Terror,” was quick to point out that Dick Cheney had in the past supported funding cuts for many of the very same weapons. The Los Angeles Times’s Ron Brownstein calls this “one of the most impressive displays all year,” and “an extraordinarily effective response,” noting that the Kerry campaign circulated its rebuttal to reporters “within minutes, well maybe hours” of the ad’s unveiling. Brownstein’s newspaper picked up the Cheney angle in a news story, as did the Boston Globe, among others.
But it’s hard to get the jump on the RNC. Remember that SUV research brief? It was just one of twenty-eight documents — including press releases, fact sheets, and research briefings — that the RNC put out that week in April, not to mention the forty-seven documents — press releases, “Ad Facts,” “De-Bunker Busters” — that the Bush-Cheney campaign generated during that same timeframe. Newsweek reported in December that “the biggest professional research team is based inside the Republican National Committee in Washington” consisting of “some 40 media and research staff.” Tim Griffin, head of RNC research, would tell Campaign Desk only that, “Generally speaking, we don’t generally speak about what we do.” Barbara Comstock, who led the RNC’s opposition research efforts during the 2000 election, confirmed that she oversaw a staff of “about 30 or 40” at that time. Edwin Chen, a White House reporter for the Los Angles Times, told Campaign Desk that the Bush camp has a “tremendously well-staffed opposition research group,” and that “the White House and the Bush-Cheney campaign work like a well-functioning machine” while the Kerry campaign “is still learning to work with the DNC.” Adam Nagourney, the chief political correspondent for the New York Times, agrees that the Bush side has an organizational “oppo” advantage for now, but points to the Kerry campaign’s recent hiring of David Ginsberg, Gore’s research director in 2000, to head up “rapid research” communications as a sign that Democrats are getting serious.
When asked about this perceived RNC oppo advantage, Jason Miner, research director for the DNC, told Campaign Desk: “I think [the Bush camp and the RNC] start from a different position. The threshold for stories is different on a candidate that’s been under the media spotlight for almost four years. [Kerry and his record] are entirely new to the national media — both the political and issues press.” And, while he declined to say how many researchers he has on staff, he said that they are “obsessed with the Bush administration and everything they do and say and we watch it all closely” in a “war-room type” office with “state of the art media monitoring and electronic research tools.”
On both sides, says the Los Angeles Times’ Brownstein, “There is just an enormously aggressive effort to shape the coverage at every step by putting out information in front of journalists — much of which is relevant.” What has changed from elections past, Brownstein says, is the level of aggression “about ensuring their half is in the other guys’ story … to ensure that nothing [goes] unchallenged.”
With nothing left unchallenged, the volume of (largely electronic) information coming at reporters this election season is, some say, overwhelming. Two reporters said they tried to “unsubscribe” to at least one campaign-related email list. Bob Schieffer, the host of CBS’s Sunday morning show “Face the Nation” says the show gets “literally hundreds of these things a week now,” largely in the form of email from the RNC, DNC, both campaigns, and assorted political interest groups. “In fact,” Schieffer says, “we get so much of it now, it’s almost like white noise or elevator music, sometimes you don’t even hear it.”