Call this a fair warning to consumers of political news over the next 17 months … or 17 years, decades, millenia, what have you. Oppo researchers don’t just feed campaigns dirt to use on their opponents, but feed newspapers, magazines, and yes even blogs to give cover for their efforts. Dylan Byers points this out in his recap of the faceplant at the New York Times today on their “scoop” on the Rubios:
If the Times did indeed rely on opposition research for the report, it would not be a departure from the norm. Political campaigns, super PACs and other political groups frequently supply news organizations with opposition research, which the news organizations then use to inform their own reporting, or simply publish. Very often, the source of the information asks that it not be cited as the source.
For several media organizations, oppo research is welcome from all sides, so long as it can be verified. To wit, The Times recently acknowledged accepting opposition research on Hillary Clinton from Peter Schweizer, the author of “Clinton Cash,” a fact that complicates accusations of liberal bias against the paper. The Washington Post and Fox News also received advances on Schweizer’s research.
Sure, that’s true. Anyone who has been in the business for a while will occasionally get an e-mail from someone they know asking whether there’s any interest in such-and-such a story about A Candidate. “No fingerprints, please,” the query will usually state, meaning that they want no attribution at all or even a trail that might lead back to them.
Should reporters use these stories? Yes … if they’re newsworthy, accurate, and verified by the reporter to the greatest extent possible, as Byers takes care to say above. Unfortunately for the New York Times, the Rubio story only satisfied one of those conditions: it was accurate. Even before the Free Beacon blew open the reliance on oppo research, which the NYT now denies, the story was widely derided as petty and silly. Four traffic tickets in 17 years isn’t exactly a showstopper for a political campaign, not even for jobs that might require driving as a part of the work. Going after the candidate’s spouse on traffic tickets is even sillier. It looks desperate and petty.
What makes this worse was that the New York Times assigned two reporters and a researcher to this story, and none of the three even bothered to get the data for themselves. Brent Scher looked up the records pulled by American Bridge from the Miami-Dade system and sees no entries for any of the three NYT reporters credited with the story. The NYT now claims they used a document service to retrieve the records, but if that’s the case, why did they need two reporters and a researcher to handle this major scoop? They’re the friggin’ New York Times — can’t they send a reporter to Miami for that kind of effort? The main purpose of assigning three people to this seems to be giving an impression that the Times actually did its own reporting on this story. Finally, their bungling not only didn’t remove the fingerprints from the oppo research, but it ended up leaving a trail directly to American Bridge.
For that matter, none of the three could even be bothered to verify whether a Ford F-150 was a “sports utility vehicle,” as their article claimed, or a pick-up truck, as everyone who has ever seen a Ford F-150 knows it to be. The New York Times later changed the reference to the “sports utility vehicle” to “truck” without noting a correction on the page, too, at least as of 13:51 this afternoon. That’s not exactly “the norm,” but it’s a pretty good indication of hackery.