To get beyond the official line that a presidential candidate walks on water and everything is just grand, journalists often find themselves granting anonymity to aides and handlers.
But why on earth should one contender's strategists be allowed a veil of secrecy to beat up on a rival candidate? Isn't that what campaigns are in the business of doing? Are reporters simply rolling over for a colorful quote?
Time magazine, for instance, allowed an operative for Vice President Gore to take a shot at Bill Bradley's health plan: " 'Big and bold is fine,' says an adviser to Al Gore. 'Big and bold and unrealistic is not.' " What made this particularly odd is that the same issue contained an interview in which the vice president himself assailed his Democratic opponent.
"It's something we ought to be more careful about," says Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson. "We ought to think about it more. If you have Al Gore attacking [Bradley], why do you have an anonymous aide attacking him?"
Time has plenty of company.
* Reuters: " 'Forbes has really dwindled as a threat. His message was fresh and exciting in 1996 but is not this time around,' said one senior Bush aide."
* The New York Times: " 'Once people know what this guy's record is, they'll realize Bradley's not what he claims to be,' said one senior official in the Gore campaign."
* The Washington Post: " 'If your message is I'm not political and I'm authentic and I'm an outsider and I have big ideas, well then, that's the bar you set for yourself and you have to live up to it,' said one Gore campaign official."
Ceci Connolly, the author of that Post story, says: "I'm well known in the campaign for fighting with people and screaming at them to be on the record. This is the culture we're now operating in, and way too many people only want to talk on background." She says the quote in question shed light on the Gore camp's approach and did not accuse Bradley of being "a thief or a murderer."
Newsweek's Howard Fineman penned this sentence about Bradley: " 'He's having it both ways, but eventually he won't have it either way,' vows a top Gore aide." Fineman says that did not amount to a "substantive attack" on Bradley.
"I think it's good to get them to explain to me what their strategy is, and if I have to do that on condition of anonymity, I'm glad to," Fineman says. "If someone's going to make an attack, I think they should have to stand behind it. . . . Admittedly, it's a fine line."
Beating the Drumm
Maureen Drumm, the star of Bradley's first campaign ad, feels unfairly maligned by the media.
In the commercial, Drumm says that "my daughter is alive today" because of Bradley. Several reporters, including this one, described the ad as misleading. Drumm has lupus and her first two children had complications after birth. But only her third child was born after Bradley helped pass a law requiring insurance coverage for 48-hour hospitalization for new mothers; Drumm says she would have been afraid to have the child otherwise, although it turned out the girl had only a case of jaundice.
"It's shocking to me because I didn't expect it," Drumm says of the coverage. "To me this is fact. I'm kind of being treated like a politician. I'm not the candidate. I was really kind of blind-sided. . . . I don't appreciate people insinuating that I'm making this up or that these are lies."
The stories, of course, have criticized the Bradley campaign, not Drumm. Still, the 34-year-old Philadelphia housewife has called some of the journalists, such as ABC's George Stephanopoulos, to complain about their criticism.
"I may have put myself in this situation by doing the ad, but I'm a novice about this. Now I understand why people have a hard time going into public service."
Some Washington area moviegoers leaving the film "The Insider" have been handed a flyer asking them to call an 800 number.
Callers are asked a series of automated questions about the movie, which recounts how "60 Minutes" spiked a 1995 interview with whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, a former executive at Brown & Williamson Tobacco:
"Based on how events were depicted, do you believe Brown & Williamson Tobacco threatened Jeffrey Wigand or his family with physical harm?"
"Do you have a more favorable or less favorable impression of Brown & Williamson Tobacco?"
It's hardly a surprise that the company paying for the poll--though this is never disclosed--is Brown & Williamson. The flyers are also being distributed in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, Louisville and Macon, Ga.
B&W spokesman Mark Smith says the poll is designed "to try to figure out the extent of the damage we've received as a result of this movie." He says Disney's Touchstone Pictures has "stepped over the line in this docudrama by using our name and the name of our chief executive, who is now dead."
Referring to a scene in which Wigand, under pressure, finds a bullet and threatening note in his mailbox, Smith notes that the FBI believed there was probable cause that Wigand placed the bullet and note there himself, and found evidence suggesting the note may have been typed on his computer. "We did not threaten Jeffrey Wigand in any way--we did not trail him, we did not put anything in his mailbox," Smith says.
A Disney spokeswoman replies that the survey "is set up so that it can be skewed by Brown & Williamson and others in the tobacco industry to generate the desired outcome." She adds that "The Insider" does not defame the company and "conspicuously disclaims any known connection between Brown & Williamson and the threats against Mr. Wigand." In fact, a general disclaimer at the end of the three-hour film--some scenes of which are simply made up--says nothing about Wigand.
The New York Post has never made any secret of its disdain for President Clinton--and, increasingly since the Senate campaign began, for his wife.
But it was still a surprise to see the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton described as "evil" last week. Really, really evil. Right up there with Hitler.
The occasion was the tabloid's online poll--totally unscientific, since it includes only computer users motivated enough to respond--which asked, among other things, about the most evil people of the last 1,000 years.
Adolf Hitler took the honors with 1,664 votes, and second place went to a write-in candidate: Bill Clinton. Then, after Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot and Josef Mengele, was the sixth-place winner, Hillary Clinton, with 765 write-in votes.
"We were pretty surprised," says Acting Editor Xana Antunes. "They were all legitimate votes as far as we could tell." She calls the online poll "a bit of lighthearted fun. I hope nobody takes it too seriously."