On the March 22 edition of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh suggested that the presidential campaign of former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) intentionally "leak[ed]" false information -- that Edwards would "suspend" his campaign because his wife's cancer had recurred -- to Politico reporter Ben Smith in order "to jump-start the campaign." At a press conference earlier the same day, Edwards announced that his wife, Elizabeth, had been told that she has Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, but that the Edwards campaign would continue. Smith incorrectly claimed that Edwards would announce the "suspen[sion]" of his campaign in a March 22 weblog post on Politico.com. Referring to that post, Limbaugh stated that "this business about" Edwards announcing that he will continue his presidential bid "makes me think that the leak that was planted today was purposely wrong to create surprise." Limbaugh reiterated that the inaccurate leak "[m]ay have been done on purpose."
Smith identified the source for his incorrect blog post only as "an Edwards friend." The Associated Press reported: "Quoting but not identifying 'an Edwards friend' as his source, Smith reported" one hour before Edwards' press conference "that Edwards was suspending his campaign and may drop out completely because of his wife's cancer." Smith explained further in a separate posting, "How the Politico Got it Wrong":
A little after 10 a.m., I put out feelers to people in Edwards' circle who weren't holed up in Raleigh, people I thought might be willing to speak freely. I instant-messaged one source, who didn't respond, and called another, who pled ignorance. I sent a chatty, half-hearted e-mail to a third, someone who speaks to Edwards, and who e-mailed me back instantly with a phone number.
I called, and the source spoke with authority and detail about the recurrence of Elizabeth's cancer, which would require aggressive and debilitating treatment. The source said Edwards had said he would be forced to suspend his campaign, though there was some discussion of how exactly to describe that hiatus publicly, and that he might drop out of the race.
At 11:08, I e-mailed my editor, Bill Nichols, that I had the story.
"How solid is this?" he e-mailed back, and I called him to say that it was from a good source, who was confident and had details.
With that level of confidence, I posted the item to my blog. The Politico put it on our front page, Matt Drudge headlined it with a siren, and I almost instantly spoke to reporters from three radio shows, telling them what I knew: that a source had told me Edwards would suspend his campaign.
Meanwhile, Edwards aides were, as I immediately wrote in an update to the original item, "pushing back very hard."
At 11:28, Edwards spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield e-mailed me, under the heading, "Just so you know."
"Anything you are getting from someone claiming to know right now is not true," she wrote. "Anyone claiming to know something right now is making it up. There is no information from this campaign until John and Elizabeth speak at noon."
I added her e-mail to my original blog item, but I didn't change the headline, which read, "Edwards to Suspend Campaign."
Later in the program, Limbaugh stated: "The left-wing blogs are going to be all over this," by noting that "Limbaugh said that the Edwards campaign lied to The Politico." Limbaugh continued: "You know, in public relations and politics, just what is a lie and what isn't? It's all a game."
From the March 22 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
LIMBAUGH: We will get to your phone calls here in a jiffy, folks, but first, three sound bites here. Two from John Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards, and then one from [Newsweek chief political correspondent] Howard Fineman.
Now, I made mention mere moments ago that the new website Politico has broken two scoops this week, both proving to be untrue. The first was that [Attorney General] Alberto Gonzales is going to quit and that the White House had asked Republicans out there to find potential replacements. The second one was just this morning, that Edwards was going to suspend the campaign. And just the opposite happened.
Now, I'm going to play these two bites. Edwards and -- John Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards to set up Howard Fineman, who commented on this later, because it provides perhaps a little insight into what happened.
Ben Smith is the blogger at The Politico who broke the story this morning that Edwards is going to suspend the campaign. He's got egg all over his face, and he's just put a post on his blog. "Hey, look, I talked to a source really close to 'em, and the source said they were going to suspend the campaign. And, you know, we were astounded. We were shocked by this. We apologize for this, but I trust this source. I'm not going to reveal the source's identity, but this source has never gotten anything like this wrong."
So you'll hear Howard Fineman's bite, and it might give you some insight here into what went on. Here, first, is Senator Edwards himself responding to a question, "What does this mean for your campaign? Are you going to suspend any activities, fundraising, travel?"
LIMBAUGH: Now, Howard Fineman -- I played those two bites to set this up. This is Howard Fineman on PMSNBC [sic] after the announcement that Elizabeth Edwards' cancer has returned but that Senator Edwards will continue his presidential campaign. This is Howard Fineman to Chris Matthews [host of MSNBC's Hardball].
FINEMAN [audio clip]: I think this is somewhat of a surprise. I think there were some websites here in Washington that were predicting that he would suspend or even drop out. That turned out not to be the case. This is an ongoing story, and this is a metaphor for how they want to fight for the country. They're willing to take the public-relations risk of analogizing their own family situation and the bravery that they've shown and the guts that they've shown to the kind of leadership that they want to offer the county. That's pretty bold, but that's the world that we live in now, Chris, where people's personal lives are analogized to their political beings. And that's what we're seeing with the Edwardses. I thought that was -- looked at politically -- diagnosed, if you will, politically, that was a 10-strike of a press conference. They showed guts. It was nothing short of remarkable and somewhat unexpected, and it's always great when something unexpected happens around here.
LIMBAUGH: Yes, it is great when something unexpected -- it's fabulous when there's a surprise. Isn't it sort of boring when we find -- what, Mr. Snerdly? Of course I know how that sounds. Of course I know. It sounds slavish. It sounds absolutely slavish.
But lookit -- he's right. There's been a -- people are sharing -- in the old days, this announcement would not have been public, and it certainly wouldn't have been tied to a campaign. It's a different era now. This is -- I'm telling you, this is to jump-start the campaign. This is to see if it'll jump-start the campaign. And we'll find out the next three or four days or whatever, week, if that happens.
But this business about this being a surprise makes me think that the leak that was planted today was purposely wrong to create surprise, to make sure everybody thought, "Oh, we know what's coming." And then have it blown away. The campaign's -- "Ooh, the campaign's going to go on. Oh, well, we thought it was going to be suspended."
You know, we all get all these press releases in advance of the State of the Union address. We all know what's going to be said before it airs. There's no surprises. This was a surprise. May have been done on purpose.
LIMBAUGH: The whole crew on the other side of the glass, apoplectic at a comment I just made before the break. And the comment about which they are apoplectic is when I responded to Howard Fineman. Howard Fineman, talking about how everybody was expecting Edwards to announce his campaign was going to be suspended because of a report on the Politico website this morning that that was the case. And he went on to say, "This was a total surprise. It was a 100 percent, total surprise." And I, reacting to that, said, "Yeah, it was a total surprise. And I wouldn't be surprised if whoever the source is purposely leaked something not true to The Politico in order to set up the surprise."
Because Fineman's right -- what good's watching a press conference when you know what's going to happen? Every time there's a press conference of something -- be it a presidential press conference, State of the Union address -- there's always the text of the speech or whatever before it goes out. Other than a, you know, a news conference, which is ad-libbed, you don't know what the questions are going to be. But, you know, we all know what's going to happen before it happens. That's the way public relations works.
Then all of a sudden, they set this up. This was a giant surprise, and everybody in Washington -- Fineman was talking about it -- everybody, CBS. CBS broke into programming at 11 o'clock when the Politico thing hit to announce that the Edwards campaign was going to be suspended. Now everybody in Washington and in the drive-by media circles is wondering how the hell this happened. Because it's so unusual. When something leaks from a source close to the campaign about what's going to be at a press conference, that's generally what happens.
Now, I have here the latest blog from Ben Smith at The Politico. I'm going to read it to you. It's called "Getting It Wrong."
"A single, confident source close to John Edwards told me this morning that Edwards was suspending his campaign, and I posted it to the blog at 11:06. My source and I were wrong. The source, whose anonymity I agreed to respect, spoke of the kind of grim prognosis Elizabeth Edwards herself just described hearing before a second round of tests came back. I trusted the source, somebody I've known for several years, and who has always been reliable. And with less than an hour before Edwards was to announce, I unwisely wrote the item without getting a second source. When the campaign pushed back harder than I'd expected, I added that information to the original item, but didn't undo the damage. My apologies to our readers for passing on bad information."
Is it not reasonable to think that perhaps the source purposely passed on something just to set up the surprise that Howard Fineman, drive-by media extraordinaire, thinks is just jolly? Thinks this is great, that something that -- we love surprises in these things.
This is not a criticism. This is -- look, this is P.R. This is how you play the media. People on the other side of the glass -- "I can't believe it. The left-wing blogs are going to be all over this. Limbaugh said that the Edwards campaign lied to The Politico." [inaudible] You know, in public relations and politics, just what is a lie and what isn't? It's all a game.
I want to go back and I want you to listen to this Howard Fineman bit one more time, and I want to ax [sic] you as you listen to this if there's something about it -- and I referred to it as "slavish" -- but is there something else about this that strikes you?
Now, let me put this in context. This is Howard Fineman reacting to the news he's just learned in a press conference with John and Elizabeth Edwards that she has incurable cancer. It has spread to the bones. It is Stage Four. Life expectancy here -- survival rate of five years, 20 percent. Survivable rate of five years. She's got -- cancer's treatable, but -- we've all just heard this press conference, essentially saying that she's dying and Edwards is going to keep the campaign going. She's going to be part of it.
See if there's anything that jumps out about -- there's not a secret sentence here that will give it away. There's not a single -- I'm not asking you to listen for something specific. Just the whole bite, and the concept and the tone of it. Is there something here that sort of makes you curious, raises red flags or whatever? Here it is.