Partisan Research Dressed Up As News

It's sloppy for reporters to use vague references to partisan opposition research in their stories without providing facts to either prop it up, or shoot it down.

Patrick Healy takes to the pages of the New York Times this morning to dissect Senator Hillary Clinton’s relationship with the U.S. military, cranking out a well-researched, solidly written article that gives us the old “he said/she said” one-two punch. In other words, it’s your typical, bloodless-yet-informative New York Times piece.

The article might have stood up better had I not just read Michael Crowley’s fascinating, detailed (subscription) look at Clinton’s history with the military in the New Republic, but since Crowley had 6,200 words to work with while Healy had a little over 1,300, any side-by-side comparison would be unfair to Healy, who was constrained by the time and space limitations of daily newspaper journalism.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some nits to pick.

A major disappointment in Healy’s piece is his portrayal of Republican National Committee opposition research as honest criticism of Clinton’s record with the military. He writes that the RNC has “compiled a series of examples that they say show Mrs. Clinton at odds with military interests, including her Iraq war positioning and her opposition to sending additional troops there.” Healy follows this up by quoting retired general Jack Keane, (one of the initial architects of the “surge” plan) and the retired major general John Batiste, both of whom give Clinton high marks for military awareness.

But still, this little bit of “balanced” reporting is almost wholly pointless, given that it is not at all clear how Senator Clinton is in any way “at odds” with military interests. More importantly, we are told only that the RNC is making the claim, but we are neither told what these claims are, or if they’re true. As a matter of fact, if news reports over the past two years are to be believed, the military brass itself seems at least as concerned with the strains the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are placing on it as Clinton is.

Recall a piece in the Times last week that showed how the four-year deployment in Iraq is actually hurting the readiness of many units, particularly a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, which has traditionally been on round-the-clock alert but which can no longer respond to trouble as quickly as they had in the past. The article also says that “Pentagon officials worry that among the just over 20 Army brigades left in the United States or at Army bases in Europe and Asia, none has enough equipment and manpower to be sent quickly into combat, except for an armored unit stationed permanently in South Korea, several senior Army officers said.”

And it’s not just Pentagon officials who are concerned. In January 2006, the AP reported on a Pentagon-funded study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments — a nonprofit policy research institute — that found that the Army is (in the words of the report, as excerpted by the AP) “in a race against time” to adjust “or risk ‘breaking’ the force in the form of a catastrophic decline.”

As if that wasn’t enough, in December 2006, just before the escalation of 30,000 more troops to Iraq, the Washington Post reported that the Joint Chiefs of Staff weren’t so thrilled with the idea: “the Joint Chiefs think the White House, after a month of talks, still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military.”

Sounds like high-ranking military officials might share a couple of Senator Clinton’s concerns, doesn’t it? As Healy himself notes, Clinton “has supported expanding medical benefits for National Guard members and reservists and providing aid to those with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. She has also defied liberals in her own party at times, endorsing the expansion of the Army, supporting financing for missile defense.”

And yet some vague, unsupported criticisms lobbed by the RNC manages to make it into the pages of the New York Times, dressed up as honest criticism.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.