BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. In a recent national Annenberg Election Survey of the 18 battleground states, only a fifth of more than a thousand people admitted to learning anything from political ads. Meanwhile, more than half said they believed that John Kerry raised taxes 350 times and President Bush wants to send jobs overseas --lies that they could only have absorbed from the ads -- so either the public is itself lying or it doesn't know how it knows what it thinks it knows. So, despite voter skepticism, political ads do work eventually, but it takes a steady stream to make an impact. Skilled campaigners know that the news media offer a far more fertile ground for planting doubts about the competition. People are more likely to believe the news. But seeding stories is painstaking work, as Atlantic senior editor Joshua Green describes in his recent article called "Playing Dirty." It's called "opposition research," and it's a time-honored technique.
JOSHUA GREEN:Back in Thomas Jefferson's days, his opponents would charge him with being a God-hating Francophile who was intent on destroying the institution of marriage, and when you think about it, that's not all that different from, from what Republicans say about John Kerry these days. [LAUGHTER] What I write in the article is that it's recently undergone sort of an evolutionary leap. In the recent past, opposition research was usually given to sort of bright, plucky college students who would gather what political professionals would refer to as votes and quotes -- you'd want to get embarrassing quotes from your opponent. You want to get a, you know, a comprehensive list of what he'd voted for, to see if there's anything awkward or uncomfortable that you could bring to the public's attention. That all changed a few years ago when instead of college kids, the Republican National Committee began to draw on investigators --veterans of many of the Clinton scandals in the 1990s, so these were congressional investigators -- lawyers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I guess most effectively was the way that Gore was done in by certain Republican practitioners of the art. Who were they and what did they do?
JOSHUA GREEN:The RNC in 2000 brought in a very talented attorney named Barbara Comstock who had been one of Dan Burton's lead investigators in Whitewater, Travelgate, a lot of these Clinton scandals. What she really did was compile the opposition research and present it almost as evidence in a trial, really working through the media to change the public image of Al Gore from a sort of stiff but competent technocrat to someone who was a serial exaggerator and had a problem telling the truth. And that's one reason why Gore didn't win the election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But as you note, it isn't just the province of Republicans. The Democrats, actually the Wesley Clark campaign, did in Howard Dean.
JOSHUA GREEN:Yeah, indeed one of the most feared and loathed opposition researchers on the Democratic side of the aisle is a guy named Chris Lehane who worked for Gore in 2000 and who worked for Wes Clark's presidential campaign this time around, helping to bring down Howard Dean, who if we remember back in October/November was really leading the pack. And there was a concerted effort, I think led by the Clark campaign, really, to use opposition research in this kind of drip, drip, drip of negative stories about Dean. For example, one of the stories was that at the same time Dean was criticizing Bush over security issues in Iraq, it turned out that the Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vermont had received the lowest safety rating of any nuclear plant in the country. And so putting this story out at the same time that Dean was criticizing Bush on national security made Dean look sort of foolish and hypocritical. Now if you multiply this story times, you know, dozens if not hundreds of examples, eventually this sort of builds up and changes the public image of a candidate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You cite studies that suggest that voters just don't respond very efficiently to political advertising any more. You say that it takes three times as many exposures to a commercial for it to have an impact than it used to and that really, free media, journalists and news reporting, is the way to go if you really want to move the voters.
JOSHUA GREEN:There are now so many media outlets, it becomes very hard to change public opinion through paid media -- through political ads. So if you really want to have an impact in a presidential campaign, it's important to work through free media as well as paid media. One way to do that is through opposition research. If you can get the Associated Press, if you can get the major television networks to kind of do your bidding for you and report stories that cast your opponent in a negative light, that can often help your candidate win a race. Now when you think about what's happened with the McCain-Feingold law and the fact that candidates now have to sign off on their televised ads and say I'm George Bush and I approved this message -- if the message is a really negative one, you risk public animosity boomeranging and instead of being directed at the target of your ad, could come back to hurt the candidate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So what you're saying is that the public doesn't respond to negative advertising but it still can respond, and very effectively, to negative reporting.
JOSHUA GREEN:Absolutely. I mean if, if the public doesn't know that you're the source of this sort of thing, then they can't direct their animosity at your candidate. The great example of this was just two weeks ago, if you remember, ABC News got a hold of a videotape in which John Kerry in a television program in 1971 said that he had never thrown away his medals which contradicted what he's said since then. Well, thanks to a story by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post we found out that the Republican National Committee, that the opposition research shop, was actually responsible for planting that, so they'd secretly slipped the tape to ABC, and ABC had dutifully run the story without, of course, mentioning that the Republican Party was the source of all this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well, obviously you couldn't have effective opposition research unless you had a really receptive press. Do you think the press should be holding this kind of material to a higher standard?
JOSHUA GREEN:The way I see it is that it's sort of a journalistic equivalent of insider trading. The political parties benefit, because they're managing to damage their opponents in a way that doesn't damage them. The media benefits because they get exclusive stories handed to them on a platter. The only people who really don't benefit are readers and viewers who, who aren't aware of what exactly is going on and why it's happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the other hand, Josh, if the information is good -- if the story is newsworthy, then why shouldn't reporters go run with it?
JOSHUA GREEN:Well, I'm not sure that they shouldn't. Like I said, most of this stuff is information in the public record. There's certainly nothing wrong with reporting that. But part of the story is that this is being given to the media in order to damage someone. And that never comes through in the media coverage itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much, Josh.
JOSHUA GREEN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Joshua Green is the senior editor of The Atlantic.