They All Do It

by digby

Howie Kurtz published a lengthy excerpt of my post of yesterday in which I indicted the press corps for being susceptible to the particular types of nasty little smears and tidbits the Republicans specialize in and those end up setting the agenda for coverage. The excerpt ended with this from my post:

"The press, therefore, will go to great lengths to protect the people who give them what they crave, most of whom happen to be Republicans since character smears are their very special talent. There was a reason why Rove and Libby used 'the wife sent him on a boondoggle' line. Stories about Edwards and his hair and Hillary and her cold, calculating cleavage are the coin of the realm.Why we see so little of the same kind of feeding frenzies on the other side isn't hard to fathom. Nobody is spoon-feeding them to the press with just the kind of cutesy meanness they prefer."

His comment, in its entirety, was this:

I agree that leakers often get to set the story line, but I also know that Democrats are not unfamiliar with the practice. (Remember the Bush DUI leak just before the 2000 election?) And those who leaked information about domestic surveillance, Abu Ghraib and secret CIA prisons also had an impact.

Can everyone see what's wrong with that picture? I knew that you could.

It's hard to believe but Kurtz seems to be implying that those who leaked the illegal wiretapping, Abu Ghraib and secret CIA prisons stories were Democratic operatives who were feeding the press a deliciously, gossipy storyline for political gain. Maybe he knows something I don't know, but to compare the whistleblowers who blew the lid off of Abu Ghraib and the others with those smarmy little staffers in Mitch McConnel's office who trafficked in smears against the Frosts says a lot about how the Village views "leaks."

And the one example he cites that might prove that Democrats do the same sort of thing is wrong. There is no evidence that the DUI story was a Democratic dirty trick. I'm not saying they weren't happy when it hit, but if they did it, it was the most bizarrely (and unnecessarily) roundabout deliberate leak anyone's ever done:

It took little more than 24 hours for George W. Bush's drunken-driving arrest in Kennebunkport to make national headlines after getting a start in an unusual place: a chiropractor's office.

The news that Bush was arrested and pleaded guilty in 1976 snowballed after a chiropractor learned about the episode from a patient who mentioned he was in court at the same time as Bush, said lawyer Tom Connolly.

The chiropractor passed the tip along Wednesday to a lawyer who directed the information to Connolly, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate and delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

Republicans immediately expressed alarm over Democratic "dirty tricks" because the source of the story was Connolly, a Democratic activist.

The lawyer who tipped Connolly was later identified in news reports as William Childs, a Democrat who is Cumberland County's elected register of probate. Childs did not return messages left at his law office.

Connolly never identified Childs, but he said a "public figure" passed the information to him because of his role as an activist.

From there, Connolly was overheard discussing the arrest and two TV reporters who were in the courthouse picked up on the chatter Thursday.

The American Journalism Review did a post mortem and it showed that the story had been knocking around Maine for a few months prior to the revelation and could have come out at any time:

ON FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 3, Andrew Russell of the Portland Press Herald in Maine walked into his boss' office to make a confession. "I think I made a terrible mistake," the regional editor told Managing Editor Curt Hazlett. And Hazlett agreed completely. Russell had let "the big one" slip away.

In July, Press Herald reporter Ted Cohen, 49, discovered George W. Bush's 1976 drunk driving arrest in Kennebunkport, Maine--a story that mysteriously eluded the national media, which claimed to have combed through every inch of Bush's background.
Cohen discussed the arrest with Russell, and the two agreed that it was old news and that Bush's past drinking problem was no secret. Russell, says Hazlett, put it out of his mind. (Cohen, however, didn't.)

The Press Herald staffers didn't hear of the arrest again until Portland's WPXT-TV Fox 51 reported the story at 7 p.m. on November 2, just before the start of "The Drew Carey Show." Fox News Channel had sent the story ping-ponging around the nation about 45 minutes earlier, courtesy of WPXT. Fox News went with the story the minute a Bush spokesman confirmed it.

Russell had never mentioned a word about Bush's 24-year-old arrest to any other Press Herald editors. Nor had Cohen. (Russell declined to comment.) "He's a very good editor, a young guy," says Hazlett of Russell. "I certainly feel bad for him. There was nothing I could say to him that would make him feel better or worse. There's no one who hasn't made a big mistake. It's made bigger by the fact that there are national implications to the story. I feel terrible that we had this story. Had he taken just a little more time and gotten another opinion, it would have changed how the whole thing was reported."

Instead of the story breaking in July, it broke five days before the election, obscuring the issue of responsibility and drunk driving. The focus became criticism of the media for publicizing the arrest so close to Election Day.

All the Gore campaign had to do, if they had this information, was slip it to Howie Kurtz himself, or any other national reporter and point them in the right direction, just like the Republicans do. The locals all got it confirmed by the police and others, there was no reason the Washington Post couldn't have as well. There was no need to go through a patient to his chiropractor who would "pass it on" to his lawyer who would then tell a "local activist" who would set it up to be "overheard" at the courthouse at just the right moment to be broadcast on a local station the week-end before the election. (I only wish the Democrats were that good.)

I realize that nearly everything that passes through the Village grapevine is Republican spin and lies, so it's difficult to know what is and isn't real. The Bush campaign did shriek like howler monkeys that that DUI thing was a dirty trick (although why it would be when it was true and Bush admitted it, I've never understood.) But knowing the truth about that story before saying it was a Democratic hit is a media reporter's job, I would think.

I am sure that Democrats send out all kinds of tips to the media about their rivals. Nobody disputes that. My point was that the Republicans were the ones who knew how to hit the press corps' sweet spot --- their lazy, gossipy side. Kurtz's reply only backs up that claim.