“Dirty tricks” have long been a staple of American campaign politics – only now they increasingly play out online, reaching millions of voters. Take, for example, the conservative email forward. Christopher Hayes, Washington editor of The Nation, has a few in his inbox.
Rumor-mongering, reputation-smearing and flat-out lies have long been a part of American campaign politics. In the seemingly quaint age before the Internet, so-called "dirty tricks" took the form of whisper campaigns or windshield flyers, filled with innuendo about an opponent, reaching thousands of potential voters. Quaint.
Nowadays dirty tricks play out online. Christopher Hayes, Washington editor of The Nation, has been following the evolution of the dirty trick. Chris, welcome to On the Media. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Thanks for having me, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's begin with the newly-elected Senator Hillary Clinton and a group called the American Gold Star Mothers. Can you take us through this from the beginning? CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Yeah. Basically what happened was a few Gold Star Mothers - it's an organization of mothers of people who've fallen in combat - a few of the members just happened to be on Capitol Hill in February and stopped by the then-temporary basement offices of Hillary Clinton and said, could we meet with the senator, could we meet with a staff member. And they said, we don't have anyone right now, but if you submit a request we'll make sure something happens.
This story, through one of these kind of games of telephone, was sort of transmitted in this way and landed in print. It was in a conservative website called NewsMax, saying that Hillary Clinton refuses to meet with mothers of fallen soldiers. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, of course, we should stipulate that the American Gold Star Mothers did put in a subsequent request with Hillary's office. She did meet with them, take pictures with them, and everybody was satisfied. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: That's exactly right. In fact, what happened was this column on NewsMax got cropped and edited and put into this email that started zipping around the Internet and getting forwarded and forwarded and forwarded, so much so that the Gold Star Mothers put up these increasingly strongly-worded statements on their website saying, no, no, no, stop sending this around, it's not true. You know, we've met with Senator Clinton.
And what's really fascinating is that it didn't matter, in some senses, that it's been denied. In fact, I have had people send me that email, you know, in the last month. There's no statute of limitations on it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you've called this a viral form of, quote, "folk media"? What do you mean? CHRISTOPHER HAYES: There's this media that is peer to peer, is viral, goes from inbox to inbox and can have what is essentially a broadcast effect, without ever sort of surfacing up into the professional media.
In some senses, you have two parallel political narratives happening, and I think that's increasingly going to be the case as the campaign carries forward. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sometimes they get picked up by the mainstream media and sometimes the candidate has to answer to them themselves. And this brings us to the Obama "Madrassa" email ringing in inboxes for a year. One of our producers was forwarded this email by his mother just a few weeks ago. My mother-in-law got one too. What's it about?
CHRISTOPHER HAYES: It's a fascinating text because the first part of it is this very flat reportorial tone, and it gives a little brief bio of Senator Obama, and much of it is true. You know, it talks about the time his Mother remarried an Indonesian man, they lived in Jakarta. And it then says that he went to a madrassa, a Muslim school, and that this madrassa was a Wahhabi madrassa, and Wahhabiism is the radical form of Islam adhered to by the people that are trying to destroy our country.
And the idea is that he's this Manchurian Candidate figure [LAUGHS] who has been secretly trained to, you know, appear well-mannered and then get into the White House and hand the country over to Osama bin Laden.
It doesn't matter that CNN went to the actual school in Indonesia and they interviewed [LAUGHS] the headmaster and he said, no, this is ludicrous. That one debunking is not getting out in this viral fashion in the way the email is. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now there's a new email being forwarded around regarding Obama's supposed refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag. Actually, he hadn't placed his hand over his heart during the National Anthem, if that makes a difference to you. This one became so rampant so quickly, he actually had to respond to it. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: [LAUGHING] Yeah. It was really funny. He was at an Iowa town hall meeting and a woman got up and she says to him, basically, what is the deal with this email I keep getting that says you don't pledge allegiance to the flag? I'm sick of getting this email. BARACK OBAMA: Look, this was The Star Spangled Banner. It was not the Pledge of Allegiance. Anytime that you pledge allegiance you put your hand over your heart. And I always have, and I always will. And so, if anybody receives that email, I just want everybody to know it's simply not true. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: And what's really interesting about this to me is that it clearly is going around mostly in Iowa. That suggests a level of political sophistication that I haven't seen before. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you say the vast majority of these electronic whisper campaigns come from the political right. And you write for The Nation, hardly disinterested or nonpartisan. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: [LAUGHS] That's right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You couldn't find any prominent examples from the left? CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Well, no, I couldn't find any prominent examples. There are rumors. I've gotten email forwards from people that show, you know, George Bush reading a book upside down.
That said, the magnitude and the breadth of reach and the coherence as a genre, if that makes sense, of the c - BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] CHRISTOPHER HAYES: [LAUGHS] - no really, of the conservative forward, there's nothing that parallels it on the left. And I think you can say that there are other sort of folk media platforms the left really has embodied and seized as their own. I think blogs is a perfect example. There are conservative blogs, but nothing that reaches the scale of something like Daily Kos.
And for some reason there's been a marriage of the medium and a certain set of politics when you look at blogs, and I think you could say the same thing with this email method of transmission. BROOKE GLADSTONE: This seems to be largely the product of amateur political operatives, not professionals. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Absolutely. That is what's fascinating. I mean, on one hand, you have a tremendous potential for concerted manipulation by paid political operatives.
At the same time, I found very little evidence that's actually happened. The same way that some kid records himself singing a song on YouTube the next thing you know there's a million viewers, something's really difficult to replicate about what it is that makes these viral emails so successful or a viral video on YouTube so successful.
So while the potential for manipulation is really high and something to really watch for in this campaign, I think, as of now it really strikes me as largely this organic emanation of a kind of folk political consciousness. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris, thank you so much. CHRISTOPHER HAYES: Brooke, thanks so much. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Christopher Hayes is the Washington editor of The Nation. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]