BOB GARFIELD: This week the New Republic magazine's Ryan Lizza broke down what he calls a "4-part Bush campaign end game." Phase one: go on attack. Phase two: roll back time to 9/11. Phase three: soften the president's image. And Phase four: kill the messenger. To get that job done, Lizza says, the Bush campaign is using an old tactic in a new way.
RYAN LIZZA: Well, what I find interesting about this final stretch is that the RNC, they regularly send out what's known in the business as opposition research about political opponents. So every day in our mailboxes reporters covering the campaign get a release with a sort of unflattering picture of John Kerry at the top and, you know, a list of negative information about him, and that of course goes on in every campaign. This is the first time I can remember where they're sending out the same kind of stuff about specific reporters.
BOB GARFIELD: Who has been targeted?
RYAN LIZZA: The first one I got was during the debates when they went after Chris Matthews. They didn't like the way that Matthews referred to Cheney's comments about tying Saddam to 9/11. Chris Matthews basically said that Cheney was wrong in the debate when he said he's never done that. The RNC sort of blew a gasket over this and sent out a lengthy rebuttal mentioning the fact that Chris Matthews is a Democrat, because he used to work for Tip O'Neill. It was kind of ironic, actually, cause of all the TV pundits the night of the vice presidential debates -- that's when this happened -- Chris Matthews was one of the only ones at saying Cheney sort of cleaned Edwards's clock.
BOB GARFIELD: Another RNC emailing went after Ron Suskind, after he had a piece in the New York Times magazine examining the president's faith and its role in, in his presidency. Tell me about that.
RYAN LIZZA: They didn't like that one much at all. And this was the first one where they included one of those unflattering pictures like they usually do with their political opponents, so they had a sort of dopey-looking picture of Suskind where he's got his eyes sort of half-closed. [LAUGHTER] They actually looked up his party registration and found out that he's a registered Democrat, and they pointed that out. They're trying to discredit this story by claiming that Suskind is too much of a political partisan.
BOB GARFIELD: The headline said "Liberal Democrat Suskind Has Creativity but Not Facts," and the headline on the release about Chris Matthews said "Democrat Chris Matthews' Selective Analysis."
RYAN LIZZA: That's right.
BOB GARFIELD: Well fair is fair. Chris Matthews was a staffer for the Democratic speaker of the House, and Suskind is a Democrat, presumably a liberal one.
RYAN LIZZA: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: So is it unfair for the Republican National Committee to kind of provide context for these guys' journalistic efforts?
RYAN LIZZA: I think what matters more than someone's party affiliation or sort of someone's personal ideological leanings is the content of what they write and say. Granted, they did take issue with specifics in all these cases. They've challenged the facts in the pieces as well as making a sort of somewhat personal attack. On the left, you find the same thing. You find a lot of bloggers and a lot of liberals through this cycle attacking mainstream journalists, accusing them of bias. And I think overall what people on both sides, the effect is to sort of polarize the press or politicize the press, and there aren't a whole lot of media institutions that are seen as down the middle and fair these days, cause both sides seem to have an interest in painting the traditional media institutions as somewhat partisan.
BOB GARFIELD: I also notice that they seem to be using attacks on the press as the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free. When newspapers started doing more fact-checking of assertions made in campaign advertising and in the debates and on the stump, a leading Republican was quoted as saying he didn't think that the president and Vice President Cheney should be subject to reflexive criticism from the press. What was that all about?
RYAN LIZZA: That was a comment from Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, made to Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post who was writing a piece about this subject. And what's remarkable about that to me is it, it sort of tells you what the White House and the Bush campaign's view is of the press. What they would like and what they've worked hard to accomplish is for the press to basically be an unmediated receptacle for their message on a daily basis. And if the press suddenly concerns itself with fact-checking that message every day, that doesn't sit so well with the White House or the Bush campaign. I think actually the White House has been very good at using the press to get their message out relatively cleanly without a, a whole lot of fact-checking. That's changed in this campaign. I think part of the reason it's changed is cause for a while Bush didn't really have political opposition. But with an opponent you have the other side pointing out factual errors in, in the White House and, and the president's statements, so there's a lot more pressure for the press to be watchdogs; a lot more pressure for them to fact-check what the president's saying. So I think they got away with a lot in the first couple of years. They've gotten away with a lot less since Bush has had a, a serious opponent.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, well Ryan, thanks very much.
RYAN LIZZA: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Ryan Lizza is a senior editor for The New Republic. We found him on the campaign trail in Toledo, Ohio. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the politics of traffic reports, and what George Bush and Al Gore have in common (negative election eve press.)