Votes, Quotes (and Dirt), Fresh from the Oven

By Liz Cox Barrett

The day after Earth Day 2004, the Republican National Committee rolled out SUV-gate.

“DON’T BLAME ME FOR SUV,” blared the headline on an April 23 “Research Briefing” available on the RNC website and emailed to supporters and reporters alike. In the briefing, John Kerry was quoted saying one day earlier that he didn’t own a sport utility vehicle and then, under reporters’ questioning, conceding that his wife owned a Suburban, adding, ‘The family has it, I don’t have it.’” The quotation was diligently attributed to an April 22 Associated Press story.

“Just two months ago,” the RNC briefing continued, “Kerry said he owned ‘some SUVs’” at an appearance in Detroit. A February 5 Detroit News article was cited as back up. Moreover, two years prior, Kerry stated that both his stepson and his daughter drive SUVs, something the RNC proudly attributed to p. S1758 of the Congressional Record, March 12, 2002.

Does anyone care? Apparently, yes.

Some ten days after Earth Day, in the May 10 issue of Time magazine, this headline appeared: “What Kerry Means to Say …” Kerry, readers were told, “gives plenty of ammunition to those who say he considers no hair too fine to split and who charge that he tailors the cut of what he says to meet the tastes of the audience and the moment.” The “ammunition” Time cited included the same AP and Detroit News quotes provided in the RNC-SUV research briefing. Next, these same quotes popped up in newspapers from the Washington Post to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. RNC chairman Ed Gillespie and President Bush each got additional mileage out of SUV-gate in various speeches — sounding an only John Kerry could take both sides on whether he owns an SUV theme. Those speeches, in turn, generated yet more media coverage.

Perry Bacon, Jr., who contributed reporting to the Time story, told Campaign Desk that he found the SUV information for the article on the RNC web site. “Using their research I was able to ask the [Kerry] campaign, ‘I read that you owned these cars,’ and I was able to get a response,” said Bacon. “That was helpful.” He added that the RNC’s research sped up his reporting process, “made it very easy to check the clips and then use it.”

For Republicans, it was Mission Accomplished: one small piece of opposition research, magnified and amplified as it bounced around the media echo chamber; one step forward in the wider effort to paint Kerry as the consummate flip flopper. As Joshua Green recently wrote in the Atlantic, campaigns use opposition research “in the service of a larger goal … to craft over the course of the campaign a negative ‘storyline’” about a candidate that in time takes root in the minds of the voting public. Journalists —eager for a scoop, on deadline, some with daily news holes to fill — are the conduit for the “storyline.” Indeed, as several political reporters told Campaign Desk, they rely on opposition research as a resource and see nothing wrong, or sinister, in the practice.

SUV-gate is just one small example of how opposition research flows. In this case (as in most, opposition research purveyors and recipients alike stress) the research consisted of information in the public domain, or “votes and quotes,” as it’s called in the trade. In an online chat in 2003 the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz described the difference between opposition research and garden-variety talking points this way: “A talking point would be to say that Joseph Lieberman has changed his position on affirmative action. An oppo-gram contains the exact quotes in which Lieberman questioned affirmative action, followed by his supporting affirmative action and insisting he’s never changed his position. That has a bigger impact on the [Tim] Russerts of the world than just partisan rhetoric.”

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.”

Says the New York Times’ Nagourney: “I get an astounding amount of email that includes clips and past quotations of various candidates, things that are designed by both sides to make the other side look hypocritical. I mean, just a deluge of it.” He adds that while “these opposition research camps have become these chest-thumping” operations, “if you were to look at my desk or any campaign reporters’ desk, so much stuff comes in that after a while you just can’t process it all. So after a while I don’t think it has the impact it once had.”

Comstock, who ran research for the RNC hit team in 2000, contends that “oppo-grams” are now better-sourced than in elections past and therefore more reliable. “It used to be people would do these cheesy little hits, saying, ‘Aha! So and so said this’ … Now [reporters] get an email with a link [to the source] and can decide if they’re interested or not.” The Los Angeles Times’ Edwin Chen agrees that purveyors of oppo now make it easier for reporters to check the factual accuracy of the “votes and quotes” they peddle. But because the research is so easy to check, Chen says, the researchers feel compelled to make an even “more aggressive attempt to put their spin” on the already cherry-picked facts.

If carefully-chosen — and carefully-spun — facts are, more often than not, what the campaigns are peddling, it falls to reporters to put it all in context for readers. With that in mind, Brownstein says he uses the fact-based or “votes and quotes” oppo “mostly as kind of a prompt … it sets you off on a destination rather than is the destination.” Even “Face the Nation“‘s Bob Schieffer considers opposition research as a sort of “tip sheet” — one that must be double-checked. Brownstein says he approaches all opposition research “with the understanding that they’re trying to put everything in the best possible light … so you’ve got to check it. I assume people check it. Whether we succeed in placing it in enough context is more of a subjective judgment.” As Campaign Desk has pointed out, much of the press corps fails to effectively and regularly check the campaigns for accuracy, or to call them out when they fudge things, often leaving that task to isolated forums like the “ad watch” columns that appear from time to time in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Too often political reporters simply report a campaign’s spin without context or criticism, and the chosen “storyline” about the opposition grows.

While several reporters told Campaign Desk that they regard opposition research as an essential resource, some were unsurprisingly reluctant to point to examples of when or how they have made use of it in their own work, preferring to speak in hypotheticals. “A campaign might call you up and say we have something like this would you be interested in it?” says the New York Times’ Nagourney. “I can’t think of times when I’ve built a story — I’m sure I have, OK — built a story off a tip from opposition research. If I did I think I’d feel a little — well, there’s nothing wrong with it — but I’d feel a little weird about it.”

Campaigns know how to play to different reporters’ interests. “I write a lot about education policy and health-care policy,” says Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, “and if [the campaigns] have a point they want to make about the other guy on one of these subjects they’ll probably call me before they call somebody else. If they’re trying to sell something on national security they might call somebody else.” Says the New York Times’ Nagourney, “Let’s just say if a campaign knew that another candidate had an affair — the ultimate stereotype of opposition research — I don’t think they’d come to [the New York Times] with something like that.”

Yet journalists are not merely passive recipients of research. “More than reporters like to admit, a lot of the data flows by request,” says John Pitney, who was involved in opposition research for the RNC in the late ’80s and is now a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. “That is, a reporter will call and ask, ‘What do you have on so and so?” The LA Times’ Brownstein admits almost as much. “If I believe that X candidate has said something in the past, but I can’t find it, I will call the research desk at the campaigns and ask do you know what John Kerry said about whatever,” says Brownstein. “I don’t see a problem with that, as long as you check the information, and they’re very good at providing [citations].”

Despite the overwhelming quantity of opposition research that flows in, competition keeps many reporters from unsubscribing from these email missives. “If they’re going to send that stuff to everybody else,” says CBS’s Bob Schieffer, “we want to make sure they’re sending it to us, too.” The New York Times’ Nagourney says that while he often can’t read everything he gets, he does “want to know everything that’s going on” and “doesn’t want to get caught by surprise.”

Competition also ensures a market for more selective leaks, whereby a campaign passes damaging material on the opponent to an individual reporter or to a select few media outlets. Jason Miner, head of opposition research for the DNC, says that in addition to the daily “rapid response” research they offer — largely, via email — “we also try to get new stories into the media blood stream. Those tend to be longer-term stories, working with individual reporters. We do a lot of that.” It can be enormously effective, he adds, since “reporters are always looking for exclusives.”

For example, in April, the New York Times and ABC News “obtained” a videotape of Kerry telling a Washington TV station in 1971 that he threw away his military medals to protest the Vietnam War. The tape seemed to contradict Kerry’s more recent claims to have thrown away just his ribbons, not the medals. In reporting on the tape, neither the Times nor ABC explained to their audiences how or from whom they “obtained” it or what agendas their source may have had. The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Howard Kurtz reported the situation this way: “This was no accident, not in a campaign season in which opposition researchers are constantly trying to unearth damaging material about the Massachusetts Democrat and President Bush. In this case, copies of the tape were provided to two news organizations by the Republican National Committee, according to several media staff members familiar with the situation who, not surprisingly, said they could not be identified while discussing confidential sources.” Says John Pitney of Claremont McKenna College, most of these sorts of exchanges between opposition researchers and reporters — the selective leaks — happen “on the quiet.”

What is a reporter’s obligation to shed light for readers on the sources of the opposition research they use in their work? “I think it probably depends on the circumstances,” says Edwin Chen of the Los Angeles Times. “If the Bush campaign said, ‘Gee, Chen, you should go look at a speech John Kerry made on such and such a date in the Senate,’ and I look it up, I don’t need to [tell readers], ‘I was pointed to this by the Bush campaign.’ If it’s hard-to-get information that cannot be gotten independently … you probably do have some obligation to say who is circulating that.”

Says Time’s Perry Bacon, Jr., “You tell readers as much as you can. You don’t need to burden your story with dutiful listings of where you got each bit of information first — if it’s something that’s publicly out there, and you checked it yourself. If it’s something harder to find, like a tape, maybe that’s a different decision.” The Times’s Nagourney, who did not write the aforementioned “tape” story but believes it was “perfectly appropriate material” to include in a piece, says he has decided not to use opposition research tips when he and the source could not agree on attribution.

Adam Clymer, a former political reporter and editor for the New York Times and now the political director of the National Annenberg Election Survey, says: “My attitude as an editor and reporter was if the negative material involves opinion, put it on the record.” But if it’s presented as fact, Clymer says, it doesn’t matter where the opposition research comes from; what matters is “is it true and is it relevant?”

If history is any guide, reporters say, both sides will continue to ramp up their oppo efforts as the election nears — and things are more likely than not to get down and dirty. “Maybe I don’t get the little envelopes with photos under the table,” says the Los Angeles Times’ Brownstein. “In that sense of opposition research, maybe people are stockpiling dirt on the other and waiting for much later in the year to put it out.” Noting that it is still early in the election season, Edwin Chen predicts that oppo will extend beyond “votes and quotes” in due time. “Some things never change,” he says.

What remains to be seen when the mud starts flying is which journalists will take the dirt and run (with) it, and which will pause to independently verify it or shoot it down — and which will choose to hold their noses and look the other way.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.