E-gads! A blog!?!

Norm Coleman is not platform agnostic

Blog. Say out it loud. Blog!

If you say it right, it almost sounds like a nasty word. (It’s got that hard plosive at the end.) It sounds especially nasty if you find a way to slip it into the right sentence.

Like this one:

“We’re not going to respond to unnamed sources on the blog.”

That’s part of what Cullen Sheehan, campaign manager for newly endangered Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, had to say yesterday at a cringe-inducing press conference.

It all started, you see, on Monday, when some blogger (yech!), put up a post alleging that a major Republican donor had a habit of picking up Coleman’s tabs at Neiman Marcus.

What did Coleman make of this report? Bill Orrick, a reporter for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, asked, and Coleman answered. Sort of.

“The idea of responding to the things bloggers throw out is something I’m not going to get into. There are very awful things that are said about people on the blogs.”

Well, sure. But where did this “very awful” accusation come from? The bump-detectors at DailyKos? The crypto-Muslim mongers at Free Republic? The profane jokesters of Sadly, No!?

Sadly, no. It came from Washington Babylon, Ken Silverstein’s blog, published by Harper’s. As in Harper’s Magazine, one of the country’s most prestigious monthlies.

Mr. Silverstein, the magazine’s Washington editor, has written a nice post defending his reporting on Coleman’s suits. But it’s one in which he’s too modest to enumerate his many bone fides. Like his stint as a foreign correspondent with the Associated Press. Or his work as an investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times. Or the series he co-wrote that garnered an Overseas Press Club award. Or the pieces he contributed that helped two different publications garner National Magazine Awards. Or the time AJR named him as one of the “unsung heroes” of the D.C. press corps.

All that makes it kind of hard to dismiss Silverstein as just some random hack-blogger without a track record, unworthy of response. Doubly hard when Silverstein runs an extraordinary, document-heavy, investigative blog. And especially hard when Silverstein’s post makes it clear that he gave Coleman’s office multiple chances to respond to his findings. The office returned by claiming, as it now has claimed in response to all queries about the Neiman Marcus situation, that Coleman has disclosed all gifts as required by Senate ethics rules. It’s a non-response, but hey, it’s still a response.

You can watch Sheehan trot out the just-a-blog line in a video where he repeatedly, if grimly, floats the legalistic non-denial of the alleged purchases. It’s become something of a blog phenom.

The off-camera star is Rachel Stassen-Berger, also a Pioneer Press reporter. This outing marked her third attempt to get a substantive answer from Coleman’s campaign or Senate office on whether or not the senator had been gifted the clothing. And on Tuesday, she was dogged in her attempts, rephrasing or repeating the question at least a half dozen times.

But at one point, italicized below, she unfortunately adopts Cullen’s blogs-are-not-worthy-of-a-response frame, and does so in a way that seems to suggest that Silverstein is not actually a reporter.

Stassen-Berger: It’s a little puzzling, Cullen, why you won’t say whether or not he received these gifts and I understand you do want to have to respond to everything on blogs, but you’re getting questions from reporters. And I don’t see why you’re not answering that. Can you explain that to me?

Sheehan: Yeah, Rachel, we’re not going to respond to unnamed sources on blogs. That’s all we would do everyday from now until the election is over. Reporters… The senator has disclosed everything he’s required to disclose, and reported everything he’s required to report.

I asked Stassen-Berger whether she’d tried, during the joust or in her other reporting, to deflate this particular talking point by explaining who Silverstein actually is.

“I have not tried that tack, but frankly, I think the Coleman campaign isn’t ignorant of who this is,” she said. For the record, Stassen-Berger too thinks Silverstein is an honest-to-god reporter, and notes that the campaign has “reacted almost instantaneously” to reporting she’s put on her blog. (In other words, she isn’t buying the line.)

“I don’t think it’s my job to tell the Coleman campaign the veracity of some other reporter,” she said. “It couldn’t hurt, but it probably wouldn’t help.”

And she’s probably right on that point. Today, I tried twice to reach the campaign’s P.R. staff to ask about their implied rule: that reporting that cites unnamed sources, no matter the track record of its author, is made unworthy of a response simply by virtue of being published on a blog. If someone had gotten back to me, I would have gamely told them a little bit about The Blogger Silverstein.

But I guess they’re not interested in hearing it from me.

I am, after all, writing online.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.