The Dirty Trick Season

What happened to Fred Thompson on the day of the Iowa caucus was a political dirty trick worthy of the great tricksters of the Nixon era. The rumor that Thompson would drop out after Iowa and endorse John McCain, reported by The Politico — picked up quickly in so many print and broadcast media — was untrue as I wrote last week.

Political rumors flood our eyes, ears and e-mails every day. What qualified this as a dirty trick were the falsity and the timing. Rumored the day before the primary and publicized highly the day Iowans went to their caucuses, the trick was intended to dissuade Thompson supporters from bothering to brave the snow and cold to go and vote for their guy. And it probably succeeded, leaving Thompson tied for third in Iowa.

Dirty tricks aren’t new to American politics. The two most memorable tricksters were Dick Tuck, who worked for John Kennedy and Donald Segretti, who was part of CREEP: Nixon’s hilariously-acronymed “Committee to Re-Elect the President.”

Tuck’s tricks were small time, but sufficient in number to hurt Nixon. Tuck posed as a fire marshal to give the media a misleadingly small attendance count after a Nixon rally. He reportedly hired a little old lady to accost Nixon after one of the debates — with media pre-positioned — to say, "That’s all right, Mr. Nixon. He beat you last night, but you’ll win next time." It seemed that every time Nixon turned around, there was Tuck.

Segretti was less humorous but probably no less effective. Among his tricks were accusing Democratic contender Ed Muskie of racism in anonymous ads and — through a fictitious “Mothers Backing Muskie Committee” — passing out bumper stickers that said, “Help Muskie In Busing More Children Now.” Did Segretti cause Muskie’s famous tear-laced appearance in New Hampshire that doomed his campaign? Maybe not, but he probably took credit for it in private.

Tuck and Segretti defined the modern political dirty trick: willfully misleading the press to damage a candidate. There’s a lesson here for all of us, especially my fellow editors. The dirty trick season is upon us. That imposes on us a professional obligation of skepticism toward stories that break very soon before a vote, when the candidate who would be hurt is deprived of the time to respond effectively.

All evidence points to the Politico story being the result of a dirty trick. As Bob Novak reports today the rumors of Thompson’s supposed plan to drop out after Iowa were apparently being pushed by Mitt Romney’s campaign. One political consultant who appears on the news as unaffiliated with any campaign was apparently at the center of the trick.  His involvement is something we are investigating. Why isn’t anyone else tracking him down? Who was he working for, and how? Do any of the grand guardians of journalism even care?  Perhaps after today they will.

Politico’s coverage broke several basic rules. Most importantly, it was reported on the day of the caucuses at about 11 am Eastern time, when Iowans were making last minute decisions to go to the caucuses that evening. Several other media outlets apparently had the same story, possibly from the same sources. Yet they declined to cover it because they recognized the red flags that waved all around it. Politico chose to go with it.

I asked Politico editor John Harris why. In an e-mail response to several questions I’d e-mailed him, Harris said, “The Politico story that you and others focused on was based on reporting within Thompson’s political circle. It was not based on information from rival campaigns. The writers were passing on newsworthy reporting about the state of thinking within Thompson’s operation.” Harris also wrote, “Thompson spokeswoman Karen Henretty did not deny our reporting when we contacted her. She told Politico, and was quoted in the story saying, ‘Doing well in Iowa means exceeding expectations, and Fred has been exceeding expectations for more than 40 years, Thursday’s results aren’t likely to close any chapters.’” And, “I do not have any knowledge about your assertion that the Thompson story was being promoted by other campaigns. It did not influence our reporting.”

Politico — either willfully or by being duped — was party to a dirty trick. But Politico’s coverage broke another basic rule of campaign reporting. Though Thompson’s campaign denied the rumors, the denials were buried in the story rather than properly written into the lede. There was no attempt at balance. The editors didn’t do their jobs.

Politico’s coverage — despite the obvious problems — got worse, not better. The following morning, a second story quoted a Thompson volunteer reacting to Thompson’s post-caucus speech: “‘Michael Murphy, a Thompson volunteer who drove down from Cleveland, shouted exuberantly after the speech, ‘You hear that? No dropping out!’ Not just yet anyway.” The broad sneer in that last line couldn’t have been missed by any editor who had read the story. Leaving it in removed any doubt about Politico’s bias.

It was only after my questions reached Harris that they published a piece saying Thompson was staying in the race. But the damage had already been done. How many voters didn’t go to the caucus for Thompson because they believed their cause was lost? How many donors didn’t write checks that day — or since — because they believed Thompson would soon drop out?

The issue here isn’t only the fate of Fred Thompson’s campaign. The issue is how the campaigns and the press will do their jobs this year. There are huge undercurrents of nastiness among the candidates and distrust of government among voters. Negative advertising seem to have crowded out all other ads. If that isn’t leavened by skepticism in the media to what the campaigns say privately, the dirty trick that befell Thompson will this year beget many more.

Note to Howard Kurtz: why aren’t you investigating this one?