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Lashing Out From Under Cover: Hey, Play Fair!

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007

Memo to political reporters: Enough already.

Is it really necessary to allow operatives from one campaign to attack another candidate without their names attached? These strategists are paid to slam the other contenders. Why should they be able to hide behind a curtain of anonymity? Do you really want to be aiding and abetting that sort of cheap-shot politics?

The New Republic quotes a "rival strategist" as saying that Barack Obama "just looks and feels soft. Most Americans see that as disqualifying." So this stink-bomb thrower (not a Clintonite, the magazine hastens to add) is allowed to say that the Illinois senator is a wimp and therefore unfit for the presidency? This from someone on the payroll of another candidate?

Unnamed sources can be valuable, not just in investigative work but also in political reporting. Trading a grant of anonymity for a dose of candor may be required when asking a staffer to evaluate his or her own candidate. That might produce a grudging acknowledgment that the boss is in trouble in Iowa or had a lousy debate, rather than the scripted sunniness that emanates from most spokesmen.

But carrying out a hit on an opponent without leaving fingerprints? Look at how common this practice has become in the media:

• Newsweek quotes "a Clinton strategist" as saying: "What would [the Republicans] do to Obama? Nobody has thought about that yet. We have. He would be snack food." In other words, the charge that Obama lacks the fortitude to stand up to Republican attacks comes from someone without the fortitude to say it on the record.

• The Washington Post quotes a "GOP consultant" as saying that although Fred Thompson had "this sheen as a conservative savior," his record is "exactly the opposite," he was "not a reliable conservative vote" and he has "a conflicting record as a Washington-insider lobbyist." The Post also quotes a "Republican observer" accusing Thompson of "ignorance and sloppiness."

• Salon quotes "a top strategist for one of Clinton's rivals" as saying, "It is amazing that the dynamic has changed in a single week from she's inevitable to you can't believe a word that she says."

• The Los Angeles Times quotes an "aide" to Mike Huckabee saying that Mitt Romney's Mormonism "is definitely a factor in the race. . . . To a lot of people, [Mormonism] is a strange religion that they don't understand." This is a twofer: The aide gets to demean not just Romney but also an entire religion. In 1987, John Sasso was forced to resign as campaign manager for Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis after admitting that he gave the New York Times, Des Moines Register and NBC a videotape showing that Joe Biden had plagiarized language from a British politician. But the tape simply contrasted publicly available speeches. These days, campaign operatives don't need such "evidence"; they simply whisper unflattering remarks to favored correspondents.

Some news organizations, including The Post, have policies against allowing unnamed sources to denigrate others, but exceptions abound.

Last spring, New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney expressed regret for having quoted an unnamed "Bush associate" in 2004 describing John Edwards as "the Breck girl of politics," and another unnamed Bush adviser as saying of John Kerry, "He looks French." To his credit, Nagourney owned up to his role, with a colleague, in "not only previewing what the Bush campaign intended to do, but, by introducing such memorably biting characterizations into the political dialogue, helping it. Was that a mistake on our part? Perhaps."

Political reporters, as a rule, are an industrious band of road warriors who work hard to get people to speak on the record. But under deadline pressure, they sometimes succumb to the lure of the juicy quote dished out by operatives trying to damage rival candidates. Perhaps it's time to rethink the practice.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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