Frustrated Oppo Guns Turn on Reporters, Not Candidates

In the new issue of The New Republic, Ryan Lizza reports on a “remarkable” development: the Republican National Committee’s decision to go negative on the press. Frustrated with the surge in fact-checking of their candidate and of party rhetoric, the RNC is e-mailing “RNC Research Briefings” to hundreds of reporters that go after specific members of the media:

On October 6, the RNC put “Hardball” host Chris Matthews, a former staffer for House Speaker Tip O’Neill, in its sights. “Democrat Chris Matthews’ s Selective ‘Analysis,’” read the headline on a three-page press release that accused Matthews of erroneously claiming Cheney had contradicted himself during the debate when he denied tying September 11 to Saddam Hussein. Accompanying the release, the RNC posted online a video attacking Matthews. A few days later, Republicans took issue with The New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller’s accurate statement that, despite Bush’s claims, Kerry “essentially voted for one large tax increase, the Clinton tax bill of 1993.” “The New York Times Shades the Truth,” read the headline of a press release the RNC quickly put out. Next up was Ron Suskind, who wrote a critical piece in The New York Times Magazine. “Liberal Democrat Suskind has creativity but not facts,” the RNC declared. A few days later, [Times op-ed page columnist] Paul Krugman became the RNC’s target. In Suskind’s and Krugman’s cases, the oppo was unusually personal and included unflattering pictures of the men, the kind that candidates dig up of their opponents, not of journalists.

The RNC, or anyone else for that matter, has every right to go after journalists who make substantive errors when covering the candidates. But members of the press should not be intimidated by unfair attacks — though having looked at the oppo ourselves, we think Lizza may have stretched a bit to call these attacks “personal.” Nonetheless, now that at long last fact checking has become a more integral part of campaign coverage than it was for most of the year, it’s no surprise that the RNC is none too pleased — after all, the spin doctors had it pretty good for a good long while.

At the end of the day, when a political party becomes upset with the press for questioning its rhetoric, that’s almost always a good thing. The media is supposed to cast a skeptical eye on those in power. Too often in recent history, the problem has been the opposite — a compliant press buying into the spiel of whichever three-card monte dealer that comes along with the most aggressive approach or cleverest pitch.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.