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The shady underworld of opposition research

We received an e-mail recently that included the following point:

It was the main stream media that was largely responsible for the origination and perpetuation of most of the smears against Gore and ultimately contributed to the closeness of the election in the 2000.

This point deserves some attention.

It's easy to blame the media for smear campaigns. After all, isn't that where most of us find out hear these stories? But it's a mistake to say that mainstream journalists are the ones who are originating these phony stories.

Michael Scherer has a great story at Salon.com about what the political world calls "opposition research."

As news events go, the "Bomb Iran" episode was surprisingly typical for the 2008 campaign. It resulted from an anonymous leak, most likely from a rival campaign, rather than the shoe-leather reporting of independent journalists. It was, in the lingo of the campaign trail, an "oppo dump," apparently compiled with the help of one of the vast, secretive propaganda machines housed in each of the major campaigns. In recent months, such invisible releases of information have often dominated the news cycle and have become ubiquitous for reporters covering the candidates. Official e-mails from campaigns regularly arrive in reporter in boxes with subject lines like "n/a," or "not for attribution." Unsigned white papers are delivered with damning facts about opponents' fundraising reports. Information is passed along by senior campaign officials in hushed tones on the telephone, only after the reporter has sworn never to reveal the source.

That's not to say mainstream journalists have no responsibility in the matter. To the contrary, without their help, these smear campaigns would never get off the ground. Political consultants come up with the talking points, then launder them through news outlets to hide where they're coming from. Mainstream media lends a false credibility to the stories, which campaigns can then use to attack other candidates.

Here's a great example of how this cycle works: Before the Democratic debate in South Carolina, the Republican National Committee published a short document called "South Carolina Debate: What 2 Watch 4." It's particularly telling that the RNC calls this garbage an "RNC Research Briefing" - it's merely a collection of news stories citing opposition research.

In fact, the RNC's so-called research doesn't actually talk about anything important to the American people. And of course it doesn't - it's not supposed to. Documents like "What 2 Watch 4" are simply aggregates of smear campaign talking points, and nothing more.

So don't let anyone tell you that these stories come up because it's what people want to know. This garbage is manufactured by highly paid consultants with one thing in mind - distracting us from the real issues.

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