BOB: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I’m Bob Garfield. We begin this week with a story of journalistic principle and political dirty work. Emilie Stigliani [Stee-lee-ah-nee] is an editor at the Burlington Free Press, Vermont’s largest daily newspaper. Several weeks ago she was contacted by the pro-Hillary Clinton Super PAC, Correct The Record.
STIGLIANI: I suddenly got an email from Daniel Wessel, who was a spokesperson with them, saying he had a news tip for me, off the record. 10 sec
BOB: The tip, about the governor of Connecticut questioning Bernie Sanders’ record on guns, wasn’t especially explosive. But Correct the Record was determined.
STIGLIANI: The first bit of the conversation was, "Ok, so we have this tip for you, and it's off the record." And I said, "Well, don't tell me. I don't go off the record. If you have something to tell me, I'm going to attach your name to it." And then it switched to, "Well, we don't like to criticize Democratic candidates, so if it's a tip for you about Republicans, then we'll go on the record, but if we give you a tip that brings to light something negative about one of the Democratic candidates, we like our name to not be attached, and you have to seek permission to attach our name. And I said no again
BOB: Stigliani was so shocked by the dirt peddling by a candidate’s surrogates that she wrote a story about the episode. Man bites dog it wasn’t; This stuff is classic “opposition research,” the political dark art of unearthing and leaking any fact likely to damage a rival campaign. For instance, the campaign of 2008 Democratic hopeful John Edwards. Remember his commitment to fight global warming? Probably not. More likely, you remember this:
“Beverly Hills hairdresser Joseph Torrenueva has confirmed that he did indeed give Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards two haircuts at $400 a piece.”
“Every time you look, there’s John Edwards getting a $400 haircut.”
“Thank goodness the AP dug deep and reported the important story about John Edwards. This man of the people recently got a $400 haircut! Which brings us to tonight’s word: $400 haircut.”
BOB: Except the AP didn’t have to dig that deep: the yummy little coif drop was dropped by the Barack Obama campaign.
And that was before the 2010 Citizens United ruling, which among other things unleashed SuperPacs to build opposition-research factories. From both sides of the aisle, operations like Correct The Record, American Bridge, and Right to Rise deploy legions of agents armed with iPhones and go-pro’s to obsessively cover every second of a candidate’s public life, and to spend hours poring over online footage, hoping to find that one slip-up worth political gold.
HUFFMAN: I’m not interested in destroying anyone personally, although I am interested in derailing campaigns.
BOB: Alan Huffman is a former journalist and has been an opposition researcher since the early 90’s.
HUFFMAN: If someone destroys themselves by derailing their campaign, so be it. I think the point is not to have somebody who is unhinged leading your country.
BOB: Huffman is of an older breed, having spent the last 25 years chasing closet skeletons in courthouses and newspaper morgues. In 2012 he and his partner Michael Rejebian literally wrote the book on the subject, titled “We’re With Nobody.” But he need lurk in shadows no more. The book’s release corresponded not only with the Citizens United goldrush, but public acceptance of oppo-research. It’s not just that the electorate is innurred to scandal, he says, we expect it.
HUFFMAN: Opposition research sort of came out of the shadows…
BOB: Do you get cynical about the democratic process? I mean, is there anybody who isn’t just a piece of garbage?
BOB: Alan Huffman is a veteran opposition researcher and co-author of “We’re With Nobody.” You can see his work in this and other election cycles. Just look for the lack of fingerprints.
Coming up, goodbye Iowa, hello New Hampshire. This is On the Media.