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Saturday, February 21, 2004
Tom Oliphant responds. The
Boston Globe columnist e-mails Media Log on the
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
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
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
posted at 3:24 PM |
MEDIA LOG ARCHIVES
Dan Kennedy is senior writer and media critic for the Boston Phoenix.