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.