Journalism's Dirty Little Secret: Most Scoops Come from Partisans

Writing at Salon, Michael Scherer discloses one of journalism's dirty secrets: many of the biggest and most sensational stories you hear about in the media were not dug up by the reporters themselves. Instead, they were handed to them by political operatives from an opposing campaign. Oftentimes, the provenance of that information is never disclosed to the audience.

While he frames his article around Matt Drudge and his supposed control of Republican politics, Scherer's point is equally true of the MSM which is regularly handed scoops by liberal bureaucrats and Democratic officials.

John McCain's "Bomb Iran" scandal almost never happened.

The reporters covering the Murrells Inlet, S.C., rally last month, where McCain jokingly parodied the old Beach Boys song "Barbara Ann" with the words "Bomb Iran," didn't think the joke was news. Only one writer, Scott Harper, from the local Georgetown Times, mentioned it in his story, and he relegated it to the 17th paragraph. "I didn't think Jay Leno would be talking about it," he said.

The Associated Press reporter on-site ignored the joke altogether, and focused his story on McCain's pledge to brief the public about Iraq on a biweekly basis if elected president. The reporter for the Sun-News, a local Myrtle Beach newspaper, also led with the press conference pledge and left out the joke. But then someone -- we don't know who, exactly -- sent a carefully edited video of the joke to Matt Drudge, who runs the most popular news blog in America and the premier outlet for anonymous political leaks from Republican insiders.

The next day, the Drudge Report headline blared, "McCain Sings: 'Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran.'" Hours later, the Associated Press echoed Drudge by sending a new story over the wire, headlined "McCain Jokes About Bombing." By then the news was everywhere. Leno, Jon Stewart, each major television network and the big newspapers eventually mentioned the clip. That afternoon, McCain was caught on defense at a campaign appearance in Las Vegas, telling reporters to "lighten up and get a life."

As news events go, the "Bomb Iran" episode was surprisingly typical for the 2008 campaign. It resulted from an anonymous leak, most likely from a rival campaign, rather than the shoe-leather reporting of independent journalists. It was, in the lingo of the campaign trail, an "oppo dump," apparently compiled with the help of one of the vast, secretive propaganda machines housed in each of the major campaigns. In recent months, such invisible releases of information have often dominated the news cycle and have become ubiquitous for reporters covering the candidates. Official e-mails from campaigns regularly arrive in reporter in boxes with subject lines like "n/a," or "not for attribution." Unsigned white papers are delivered with damning facts about opponents' fundraising reports. Information is passed along by senior campaign officials in hushed tones on the telephone, only after the reporter has sworn never to reveal the source.

Both reporters and the campaigns benefit from this thriving black market of information, as does the public, in many cases, because noteworthy facts about the candidates are widely disseminated. But the growing profusion of campaign-driven stories has also sidelined traditional on-the-ground journalism, while at the same time misleading the public about the true source of information. Though reporters, and blogs like the Drudge Report, take credit for scoops, the news of the day is more often than not produced by the invisible hand of one campaign or another. Journalists long ago learned how to play the game. "Reporters will often call and ask proactively, 'What kind of dirt do you have for me?'" said one senior official at a presidential campaign who asked not to be identified.

That last part is a little funny. An anonymous source denounces anonymous sources.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013