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].”