Jim Webb Kept Smear Files on Bloggers

Shaun Kenney reports that Senator-elect Jim Webb kept “Nixonian” opposition research files on Virginia based bloggers (although apparently I didn’t make the cut) in order to smear those who published unflattering commentary. This included Democrat-leaning blogs that supported Webb. Ben Tribbett (better known as “Not Larry Sabato”) and William Beutler confirm and expand on that report.

Jon Henke launches a defensive strike, disclosing all his dirty secrets before Webb’s people can do it.

J.C. Wilmore has the most interesting twist on the story, arguing that it is fine for candidates to gather files to smear bloggers on the other side but that it is crossing the line to do the same for those on your own side just in case they turn on you. The moral distinction escapes me but it’s a long post you can read for yourself.

Doing opposition research on one’s opponent–the other candidate in the race–is legitimate. It is perfectly reasonable to find out what votes a person has made, who he is getting his money from, and what scandals he has been involved in. Voters have a right to know these things, especially if they are in contradiction to the way the candidate portrays himself.

Conversely, it is outrageous to dig up dirt on journalists to silence their exercise of their First Amendment rights. It was rightly condemned when Richard Nixon did it. Bloggers who are independently covering and/or commenting on political races are, in that capacity, journalists.

On the other hand, Henke and others who were working as campaign staffers or even quasi-staffers are in a no man’s land between those extremes. They are, in that context, not fair game in the sense that candidates are but are not acting as journalists, either. More reflection and discussion on what the boundaries are for this group is needed.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Libertyblog says:

    calls it

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  3. McGehee says:

    If he wanted to keep one on me, I’ve saved him the trouble. The file is located at Yippee-Ki-Yay.us

  4. Anderson says:

    Conversely, it is outrageous to dig up dirt on journalists to silence their exercise of their First Amendment rights.

    ??? How does Webb’s speech about bloggers “silence their exercise of their First Amendment rights”? How many times have I seen conservative bloggers remind the world that the First Am protects v. government?

    You’re getting all moonbat on us, JJ. Must be the election.

    –Of course, whether Webb’s practice shows that he’s a jerk is a different question.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Anderson:

    Your position is that it is fine for government officials and/or political candidates to dig up dirt on journalists for the purposes of creating a chilling effect on speech?

    Yes, it’s true that the 1st Amendment only prohibits Congress from abridging free expression. They’re still “1st Amendment rights.” I’m not suggesting that Webb is violating the Constitution, merely the long-established norms of our society.

  6. legion says:

    Conversely, it is outrageous to dig up dirt on journalists to silence their exercise of their First Amendment rights. It was rightly condemned when Richard Nixon did it. Bloggers who are independently covering and/or commenting on political races are, in that capacity, journalists.

    You bring up an interesting point, James. I think ‘honest’ bloggers might count as journalists, but there are many out there who really are just smear artists. And no shortage of “journalists” whose transparent partisanship puts them (IMHO) in the same group. Do people/websites with an obvious agenda like, say, Peggy Noonan or John Solomon (or Kos or the guys at PowerLine, for that matter) warrant that level of protection?

  7. James Joyner says:

    legion:

    Do people/websites with an obvious agenda like, say, Peggy Noonan or John Solomon (or Kos or the guys at PowerLine, for that matter) warrant that level of protection?

    Those who are opinion journalists with a partisan lean, such as Noonan, or reporters with a bias, like Solomon, absolutely do. It’s fair game, to be sure, for other opinion journalists–certainly including bloggers–to challenge their reasoning, consistency, integrity, etc. But I think it’s illegitimate for candidates and politicians to hire private detectives, go through their credit records, and all the rest.

    Those who are activists–actually involved in campaigns, party building, and/or fundraising–like Kos are in that “no man’s land” I describe in the final paragraph of the post.

    I’m not sure where put people like the PowerLine gang or Hugh Hewitt. My inclination is that they should still be treated like Noonan and other opinion journalists and ridiculed as partisan hacks when the shoe fits.

  8. Anderson says:

    Your position is that it is fine for government officials and/or political candidates to dig up dirt on journalists for the purposes of creating a chilling effect on speech?

    Um, yeah, of course it is. When has it ever not been? Well, legal, at least; as I suggested, it may not be “fine.”

    Maybe Eugene Volokh will weigh in here & explain why I’m totally mistaken, but I don’t see it.

  9. James Joyner says:

    I’m not suggesting Webb is acting illegally, just outside the boundaries of propriety. And considering how loose the rules are in politicking, that’s really saying something.

  10. legion says:

    James,
    Yeah, I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this. My gut reaction is similar to yours, but there’s still this little voice in the back of my head saying “what’s good for the goose…”

  11. Anderson says:

    I think that a politician’s sliming journalists is the kind of misdeed that earns its proper reward. Webb would so alienate the media that he would have a very sad term in office.

    OTOH, given the importance of disclosing bias and conflicts, a “gag rule” (informal or not) about journalists seems like an obviously bad idea.

    Just for the record, I’m a Satanist who practices bestiality, shoots heroin, and voted for Dukakis. See? That was easy!

    (Actually, no–not even *I* voted for Dukakis.)

  12. Tano says:

    What kind of oppo research are we actually talking about anyway? I saw references to credit reports, but also a denial. Is it nothing more than combing through the archives to have a file of stupid comments?
    Maybe we should be clear on this before launching into grand philosophical debates.

  13. Congratuation Jim Webb!