Saturday, February 21, 2004

Tom Oliphant responds. The Boston Globe columnist e-mails Media Log on the question of whether Wesley Clark smeared John Kerry, and/or whether Matt Drudge smeared Wesley Clark:

I could not have written anything about Gen. Clark's bus discussion had I been there. Contrary to Mr. Lizza's unclear description about it being off-the-record "sort of", I was told by others who were there that the ground rule was off-the-record. Most of these reporters told colleagues, friends, and other campaigns about it. This is why it is so weird to me that a candidate would talk about a sensitive subject with a group of reporters on that basis.

They also told their home offices, which raises a factual point about all this absurdity that I think has been overlooked. In studying how a germ got into the system, the narrative is not simply Clark and then Drudge. There had been chatter in the political world about "something" coming on Kerry for weeks before that, dating roughly from the end of January. It had no specific basis I was aware of, but the chatter was fairly constant.

Despite the absence of anything specific, I recall thinking and remarking to pals at the time that given contemporary standards there was no way this wasn't going to lead sooner or later to an ugly incident. I can't help you on Chris Lehane as described in your account of Craig Crawford's situation, but from personal experience it was my direct observation that the chatter extended across the campaign and press worlds. I saw it more as inappropriate gossip than sinister plot.

I used quotes only around "intern", obviously not to quote Drudge but to use the one word everyone I talked to used. From the accounts I heard from reporters there and people in their home offices to whom they talked, the verb implode fits the various accounts, though self-destruct and blow up were other examples.

In addition to summarizing the background to Clark's behavior, I also wrote that his comments directed attention [to] (some said specifically mentioned) the piece in The National Enquirer before it was published. The piece was transparently a clip job, but the effect was to increase the level of chatter by a lot. Drudge took it down to the next level, which I described as a frenzy about a story that hadn't been written concerning an allegation that hadn't been made. Clark's role - and by now I would suppose that one of the reporters there will consider writing the whole thing up - was not isolated; its context was weeks of unfocused gossip-mongering behind the scenes. It is not true that one consultant or one campaign was responsible; as usually happens this was much more generic, and as is usually the case the origin of the chatter about "something" is obscured.

In a subsequent phone conversation, Oliphant told me, "There are at least six or seven accounts of this thing. They don't differ in basic thrust, but they differ enough that you know you can't possibly get a handle on it as if it were a transcript of a White House press briefing."

He added: "I was just trying to make the judgment, did Clark play a role in this? And my answer is, yes, but it's not clear-cut-and-dried except in context." Clark's remarks, he explained, would have amounted to no more than "idle chatter" if they hadn't occurred in the context of the buzz that had been making the political and media rounds for at least several weeks previously - buzz that put everyone in "precisely the wrong frame of mind to handle a virus like Drudge."

I asked: But didn't the mainstream media, with very few exceptions, act responsibly by failing to take Drudge's bait? Oliphant answered: "The fact that nobody of any consequence committed any really flagrant foul is certainly encouraging, I guess. But not entirely so, because so much was going on behind the scenes." He called Drudge's non-sex non-story "a tremendous amount of distraction for several days," adding: "It could happen all over again tomorrow. And this one came very close to getting completely out of hand."

A few observations.

First, now we know that Oliphant wasn't there. His observation that he couldn't have broken off-the-record ground rules is well taken. But Oliphant is a columnist who travels, and his paragraph on Clark's alleged outburst had all the appearance of an on-the-scene report, written by someone who was no longer bound by confidentiality since the information had already been reported elsewhere. I'm sure Oliphant wasn't trying to deceive anyone, but he could have been clearer.

Second, Oliphant appears to have done enough checking around to make a convincing case that Clark played some role in spreading the rumor that Drudge would eventually blast across the world. Oliphant's account can't be reconciled with those of the New Republic's Ryan Lizza or the Washington Post's Ceci Connolly. But Lizza, who was there, offers a tantalizing suggestion that Clark really did make a horse's ass of himself. And Connolly, who apparently wasn't there, relies - like Oliphant - on the word of others. Clark's staunchest defenders will probably be unconvinced, but I think Oliphant's account passes the smell test.

Finally, Oliphant's account of the context surrounding the Kerry rumor is fascinating. Given the level of chatter that was apparently taking place, it's a miracle that the media showed as much restraint as they did when Drudge finally published his sleazy, unfounded story. And Oliphant is absolutely right when he says, "It could happen all over again tomorrow."

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