Right-wing bloggers leave their stain on the campaign

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Nearly four years ago to the week, right-wing bloggers were basking in the glow of their CBS Memogate caper.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Nearly four years ago to the week, right-wing bloggers were basking in the glow of their CBS Memogate caper.

They were being toasted in the mainstream press for their dogged detective work (even though it was suspect) and tapped as the next great resource of the conservative movement in America.

Fast-forward to the autumn of 2008, and the same bloggers are almost unrecognizable in terms of their shrinking clout and the almost complete un-seriousness with which they operate.

Rather than using the CBS story as a stepping stone to launch serious online investigative work and to grow the right side of the blogosphere into an alternative and insightful newsgathering source, the bloggers -- how do I put this politely? -- have pretty much become a joke in terms of original reporting, with many of them throwing away any legitimacy they accidentally acquired in 2004 when they stumbled across the CBS story.

And boy, it must irk them to look around and see what the liberal blogosphere has been able to achieve over the same four-year span. To see how the netroots community responded to that heartbreaking John Kerry loss and to see that it now enjoys unbridled success and growth, and how its efforts often crackle with enthusiasm. How they're helping, in modest but unmistakable ways, to change the debate in America, especially this election season.

Note that it was liberal bloggers who pressured Democratic candidates to pull out of primary debates scheduled to be hosted by Fox News, an unprecedented campaign feat. They were the ones who put the Associated Press on notice for shoddy reporting, helped elect a new breed of Democrat to Congress, and almost single-handedly elevated the issue of warrantless wiretapping. It was the progressive bloggers who forced John McCain to repudiate Pastor John Hagee and who created their own convention-within-a-convention in Denver this summer, an off-site hot spot that drew high-profile politicians, speakers, and journalists. (How did GOP bloggers pass their time in St. Paul?)

By contrast, right-wing bloggers are now reduced to playing small ball. And even then, they're prone to Little League bloopers. Last week was a perfect example of how the conservative blogosphere's leading lights have been reduced to ridicule, simply because their efforts have become so thoroughly laughable. (See Sadly, No! for the ridicule part.)

For reasons that still elude me, considering the grave issues now facing this country and that remain in play in the unfolding election, the right-wing blogosphere's biggest names decided to rally around the monumentally trivial pursuit of trying to uncover who produced a little-known, anti-Palin YouTube clip that first appeared online earlier this month. And then without a shred of actual evidence (that's their favorite method), the bloggers deduced the Obama campaign may have had a hand in the long-forgotten clip. In fact, Obama himself may have "funded or knowingly supported" the online effort.

Can I just say for the record that when bloggers set out to create buzz about a big "investigation" and count down the hours until the bombshell is published online, and then a posted correction actually precedes the report itself, that's a sign that all may not be well in "investigation" land?

And that's what happened with the right-wing Jawa Report and its overexcited exclusive ("extensive research" was involved!) that set out to identify the person who was behind an anti-Sarah Palin video "aimed at discouraging people from voting for McCain/Palin" and that erroneously claimed she had once been a member of the Alaskan Independence Party.

Not exactly blockbuster stuff, we agree. (Misinformation spread via online clips? What next?!) But the Jawa Report's Rusty Shackleford seemed to have the goods on the person who posted the clip and where he worked: Ethan Winner, a vice president with the Los Angeles-based public relations firm Winner & Associates. (Shackleford noted that he used the same research techniques to out Winner that he'd previously used to uncover "the identity of online terrorist supporters," because Palin critics and terrorist supporters are sort of alike, I suppose.)

And sure enough, Winner quickly admitted to posting the clip. Or "confessed," in Jawa parlance.

So, yes, Winner posted a video that was inaccurate. Case closed and democracy saved, right? Wrong. Because the Jawa Report's completely circumstantial report also suggested the Obama campaign, or some other nefarious, left-leaning outside entity, may have helped peddle the video by either paying for it or by using Winner's P.R. firm in an effort to make it go viral. And that represented a hugely important story, a "scandal."

In that regard, the "investigation" was a laughingstock, drowning in layers of guilt by association but without the slightest evidence to prove anything. And certainly without any evidence to prove the central premise of the "investigation," which was that because Winner worked for a P.R. firm that had ties to the Democratic Party, Winner must have been paid to produce the clip and may have even been paid or encouraged by the Obama campaign.

Winner flatly denied the allegation, claiming he made the video himself. (It's called user-generated media, and apparently it's all the rage this campaign, even for political pros.) He also flatly denied that the Obama camp was involved in any way or that any other independent political action committee was either, for that matter. The Obama camp also issued a blanket denial: "This one ranks as one of the most outlandish conspiracy theories in a campaign that has had its share of them. Neither our campaign nor any of our consultants had any involvement with this YouTube video."

I chuckled when I read the countless right-wing posts about the Jawa Report's supposed blockbuster and discovered that in the course of the "investigation," right-wing bloggers practically begged the McCain campaign to join them in their little squirrel hunt. But the grown-ups inside the GOP (wisely) ignored the bloggers' request.

The pros might have kept their distance, but the right-wing blogosphere cheered Shackleford's "must read post." They all claimed he'd hit reporting gold with his insightful analysis and detailed detective work.

Michelle Malkin insisted it was the latest example of bloggers doing the real reporting that lazy mainstream journalists would not. (Malkin hyped the exclusive on Fox News, where the FNC regular butchered the facts of the story.) "It certainly appears that Barack Obama's campaign manager is involved if not orchestrating these efforts," announced blogger Confederate Yankee.

"It looks ... suspicious. And, do you know something? Right now Rusty's suspicions are pretty damn credible," cheered RedState.

"If all of this is true and the Obama campaign can be connected to it, it would represent a massive set of FEC violations," blurbed Ed Morrissey [emphasis added], who apparently didn't see the earlier memo that conceded there was nothing illegal about the making of the Palin video even if the Obama campaign paid for it.

"I think they're lying," claimed Ace of Spades, which saw an even bigger conspiracy at play: The Obama campaign had actually produced the YouTube clip itself and then pawned it off on Winner.

Can I just say that "I think they're lying" could pretty much double as the right-wing blogosphere's motto? Because whenever they come up against a set of stubborn facts they don't like or can't disprove, they just reach for the "I think they're lying" card and plow ahead, usually straight into oblivion, as with the Jawa Report's "investigation."

Don't just take my word for it.

"Trivial," is how Politico's Ben Smith described the right-wing blogosphere's sad, ill-fated production. "It's driven by theories that just aren't substantiated."

Added Marc Ambinder, blogging at The Atlantic: "What the evidence implies is that a liberal PR firm decided to gin up some anti-Palin viral videos. That's it."

It was telling that Smith and Ambinder were among the only journalists connected to mainstream outlets who even bothered acknowledging the YouTube "investigation." Ironic because just four years ago, many of those kind of mainstream media outlets were busy patting the bloggers on the back for their Memogate coup. Today, journalists seem to look at the bloggers with an odd mixture of pity and contempt. "This is your centerpiece contribution to the unfolding campaign?" they might be asking.

But anyway, go read the whole Jawa Report mess if you must. I'm not going to address each tinfoil-hat point, but I will accentuate a couple of lowlights just to give a sense of the intellectual dishonesty that's rampant on the right, and that seems to be celebrated.

Jawa announced, way up at the top of the piece where the "investigation's" bullet points were breathlessly typed up, that it was "likely" that the [Winner] PR firm was paid by outside sources to run the smear campaign."

A weeklong investigation, and the best Shackleford could come up with was that it appeared "likely" the P.R. firm was paid? That strikes us as monumentally lame. But oh well. More important, however: What was the proof to even support the "likely" part? Answer: There was none. Invoices? Nope. Quotes? Original reporting? Nope.

An active imagination? And how!

That "likely" part was simply Shackleford's assumption because that's what seemed plausible to him. You know, the way it was "likely" that the Associated Press concocted a phony Baghdad police captain named Jamil Hussein in order to quote him and help the worldwide news agency spread the insurgents' propaganda. We all know how "likely" that turned out to be. (And then there was Shackleford's Bilal Hussein fiasco ... )

The question that weighed on Shackleford's mind was, "Why would any one hire a PR firm" to launch the clip? The hiccup was that he had uncovered no evidence that anyone hired Winner's P.R. firm. But that didn't stop Shackleford from speculating about who might have paid for the clip, even though there was no evidence anybody did. (See how liberating fact-free "investigations" can be?)

Shackleford thought maybe George Soros, MoveOn.org, or some other mysterious 527 footed the bill.

More intriguing, though, was Shackleford's announcement that the possibility was "open" that "Obama or the Democratic Party might also be the ones paying for the campaign."

The evidence in support of that tenuous Obama link was almost too funny for words, and we'll get to that soon. But here, it's important to emphasize that even if Jawa Report had uncovered black-and-white evidence of the Obama campaign's involvement, the still-unanswered question would be, "So what?" And that's what really made the whole "investigation" so painful and tiresome to read: knowing that even if the bloggers connected each very, very distant dot, the whole mess still wouldn't have added up to anything.

I mean, if tomorrow Shackleford unearthed a signed invoice from Obama media chief David Axelrod himself paying for the YouTube clip, I'd still be asking, "So what?"

As Time.com noted, "Even if the Obama campaign or the McCain campaign produced the ad, there is no requirement under federal election law that they disclose authorship, as long as the ad is distributed free online, not as a paid advertisement."

But it would look bad if team Obama were involved, the bloggers clamored. Maybe, maybe not. But I don't think it's up to them to decree that Democrats aren't allowed to play hardball if they want. And that seemed to be the gigantic gotcha that fueled the "investigation."

Speaking of, what was the evidence that led Shackleford to suggest the Obama campaign might be involved in the YouTube clip (and perhaps even paid for it), and what was the evidence that led other bloggers to announce the Obama campaign was involved? Answer: The voice-over artist who narrated the clip. She represented the key to the whole "scandal," according to the over-caffeinated bloggers. She might "provide direct linkage between the video and the Obama campaign."

Try not to laugh here, but identifying the voice-over artist became central to the whole soggy conspiracy theory, because when you stripped away the layers of conjecture and what-ifs that puffed up the "investigation," the bloggers were left grasping at the notion that the woman who worked on the Winner YouTube video kinda sorta sounded like a voice-over artist who had worked for one of the consulting firms associated with David Axelrod.

Do you follow? The entire conspiracy theory revolved around the premise that because the voice-over talent on the YouTube clip had (possibly) worked for Axelrod, it was only natural to tie the Obama campaign to the long-forgotten video.

If you say so, Rusty, although I think that's an almost comically inept way to build an "investigation." Because even if he proved who the Winner voice-over Jane Doe was, and even if he proved she'd worked for Axelrod in the past, those two facts would have advanced the plot line approximately one foot.

Nonetheless, check out the bullet points touted from Shackleford's "investigation":

  • This same voice-over artist has worked extensively with David Axelrod's firm, which has a history of engaging in phony grassroots efforts, otherwise known as "astroturfing."
  • The same voice-over artist has worked directly for the Barack Obama campaign.

Additionally, Shackleford announced, "We believe that the artist in the ... Palin smear video has also worked directly for the Barack Obama campaign."

Now, reading those proclamations, it sure seemed like Shackleford knew exactly who did the voice-over work for the YouTube clip, right?

Wrong. Because in truth, as the bloggers buzzed around the story last week, they did not know who did the voice-over work on the Winner video. Oh, sure, they had inklings and hunches and guesses. But a name? A confirmation? A direct connection between her and Axelrod or Obama? Sorry, you'll have to look elsewhere, folks.

And don't forget, even if the voice-over woman worked with Axelrod -- even if it were Axelrod's wife -- we'd be right back to the question of, "So what?"

Here's the bottom line for right-wing bloggers in 2008: Their hyped "investigation" failed to confirm a story that doesn't even matter.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

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Elections
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