In a perfect storm of overexuberant campaigning by a state party, unclear reporting by a local TV station, panicky overreaction by the right-wing blogosphere, self-serving misinterpretation by a Republican politician, and cynical politicking by the Republican National Committee, a small and inaccurate story aired last week by a local St. Louis, Missouri, television station that was on its way to being forgotten was given new and undeserved life over the weekend by the Republican spin machine. How this came about is a good case study in the anatomy of modern "spin" politics:
In press releases issued Saturday, the Republican National Committee and Republican Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt resurrected and misinterpreted a story, initially aired by a local Missouri TV station and echoed by a handful of conservative blogs, that seemed to imply that the Obama campaign was conspiring with Missouri sheriffs and prosecutors to arrest and indict people who say misleading things about the Democratic Presidential candidate.
Ironically, the Republican press releases accusing the Obama campaign of creating a "police state" come less than a month after a Republican National Convention that was marred by riot police who preemptively jailed both people planning to engage in peaceful demonstrations and journalists planning on covering those demonstrations.
The dispute concerns statements made by Missouri elected officials who, in their private capacities, have joined efforts to counter what they perceive as inaccurate anti-Obama advertising in the runup to Election Day. On September 24, the Missouri Obama-Biden campaign office issued a press release to announce the formation of the "Missouri Truth Squad" which included this assertive and, in hindsight, confusing language:
The Obama-Biden campaign is putting the McCain campaign on notice by rolling out the Missouri Truth Squad -- a group of leaders from around the state who will be proactive in letting voters in the Show-Me State know the truth in the face of the distortions by the McCain campaign. The Missouri Truth Squad will be anchored by United States Senator Claire McCaskill and will include other elected officials and members of the Missouri law enforcement from throughout the state.
The mission of the Missouri Truth Squad will be to respond quickly, forcefully, and aggressively when John McCain or his allies launch inaccurate claims or character attacks about Barack Obama, or when they distort Barack Obama's record or plans. Judging by how much the McCain campaign has lied and distorted over the past 2 months, the Truth Squad is expecting to be deployed regularly over these final 6 weeks.
The Missouri campaign's press release does not say that "Truth Squad" members would act in their official capacity in any way, just that they would counter any "distortions," but it's nevertheless aggressive in tone and emphasizes the role of prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the group's membership. On September 23, St. Louis, Missouri TV station KMOV-TV, apparently misunderstanding the intent of the "Truth Squad," aired a story inaccurately suggesting that the Obama campaign was enlisting state sheriffs and prosecutors to actually take legal action against anyone who makes a false or misleading statement about the Presidential candidate:
The Truth About "Truth Squads": However, the interview clips included in KMOV-TV's video don't appear to back up its reporting. The reporter says that "Truth Squad" members "plan to respond immediately to any ads and statements that might violate Missouri ethics laws," but it's unclear what those "ethics laws" might be, and neither the "Truth Squad" press release nor the portions of the interviews aired mention laws of any kind -- just that the "Truth Squad" members will speak out publicly to counter misleading "Swiftboat"-style commercials and rumors.
The reality is that both during the primaries and in the general election, both campaigns have created numerous so-called "truth squads" not to arrest opponents but merely to counter negative advertising with public relations, largely to prevent a recurrence of factually unfounded but nevertheless effective smear campaigns like George W. Bush's racist "push polls" against McCain in the 2000 Republican primaries and the "Swiftboat" attacks that derailed John Kerry's Presidential bid in 2004.
For example, Obama had a "truth squad" in California during the primary campaign, as well as a South Carolina Truth Squad that reportedly succeeded in convincing the Clinton campaign to voluntarily pull a misleading ad.
More recently, the McCain campaign created a "McCain Truth Squad" on June 30 to counter perceived attacks on McCain's military record, and on September 8 announced the "Palin Truth Squad" to "set the record straight against Internet and liberal smears of Governor Palin." In response, on September 10 Obama launched his own "Alaska Mythbusters" group, consisting of pro-Obama Alaska elected officials, to "set the record straight about whether Palin has what it takes to bring the change that's needed in Washington, DC." All of these groups are, at heart, just public relations gimmicks, issuing press releases and holding press conferences to offer their own spin on campaign developments, not to engage in legal action of any kind. The entire "truth squad" concept has been overused to the point that it's even starting to be satirized.
Last week, the Obama campaign began unveiling new "truth squads" in several battleground states. All are similar to the ones announced by both sides earlier in the campaign: elected officials and prominent citizens coming together to counter what they see as false or misleading "Swiftboat"-style attacks as Election Day nears. For instance, the Obama "Pennsylvania Truth Squad" unveiled on September 22 lists Gov. Ed Rendell, Sen. Bob Casey, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Congressman Jack Murtha, state and local officials, union leaders, and one prosecutor among its participants, and describes itself as "a group of elected and community leaders from around the state who they say will be proactive in letting Pennsylvanians know the truth in the face of the distortions by the McCain campaign. The mission of the Truth Squad will be to respond to accusations the Obama campaign perceive as false."
The Missouri Truth Squad appears to be no different -- except that its press release inartfully overemphasized the role of law enforcement officials in its membership (which actually includes elected officials of all kinds, acting in their private capacities). But even if KMOV-TV was mistaken about what the "Truth Squad" members actually said, it may have been correct to be alert to the problems that can arise when the line between public and private action are blurred. Historically, there are numerous cases where political parties have misused law enforcement officials, on- or off-duty, to affect elections inappropriately, such as in Florida in 2000 where police were accused of erecting "routine" drivers license checkpoints in minority neighborhoods on Election Day, and in New Jersey in 1982, where the Republican Party enlisted law enforcement officers to do "ballot security" in predominantly black polling places. The Republican Party is even subject to an ongoing, nationwide court order barring it from using law enforcement personnel to perform "ballot security."
KMOV-TV's story drew some publicity among conservative bloggers and commentators after conservative blog mainstay The Drudge Report briefly posted a link to it. WorldNetDaily claimed inaccurately that "[a] team of Obama-supporting prosecutors and sheriffs in Missouri is preparing to pursue legal challenges to any presidential campaign ads deemed to be false or misleading"; another blogger fearfully announced "Obama Stalinist Police State Already Taking Form." The National Review blog's Jim Geraghty, who ought to know better, parsed the TV spot carefully enough to note its main flaw, but raised the alarm anyway: "While the report never quite comes out and says that anyone running an ad saying those things would be subject to prosecution, that certainly is the message implied." In response, a handful of liberal bloggers contributed some more levelheaded analysis, most notably Ursa Majority at DailyKos.
G.O.P. Ups the Ante: Despite those ripples in the blog pond, the story didn't otherwise catch on and started to fade - until Missouri Governor Matt Blunt and the Republican National Committee teamed up to give it a boost Saturday.
On Saturday, possibly in hopes of deflecting favorable media coverage given Obama following Friday's Presidential debate, especially in a state that historically has been decisive in the national election but where McCain currently holds only a five-point lead in polls, Gov. Blunt issued an inflammatory statement on his official State of Missouri website referring to "the stench of police state tactics," blaming "leftist blogs" and saying "Barack Obama needs to grow up."
Blunt, a conservative Republican who has indicated he may seek an unnamed higher office in 2012 and who has a history of using his position as a bully pulpit to issue heated partisan attacks against opponents and the media, used such hyperbolic -- and clearly partisan -- language that his release is worth reading in its entirety, especially given its context on a nominally nonpartisan, taxpayer-funded state government website:
Gov. Blunt Statement On Obama Campaign's Abusive Use Of Missouri Law Enforcement
JEFFERSON CITY - Gov. Matt Blunt today issued the following statement on news reports that have exposed plans by U.S. Senator Barack Obama to use Missouri law enforcement to threaten and intimidate his critics.
"St. Louis County Circuit Attorney Bob McCulloch, St. Louis City Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, Jefferson County Sheriff Glenn Boyer, and Obama and the leader of his Missouri campaign Senator Claire McCaskill have attached the stench of police state tactics to the Obama-Biden campaign.
"What Senator Obama and his helpers are doing is scandalous beyond words, the party that claims to be the party of Thomas Jefferson is abusing the justice system and offices of public trust to silence political criticism with threats of prosecution and criminal punishment.
"This abuse of the law for intimidation insults the most sacred principles and ideals of Jefferson. I can think of nothing more offensive to Jefferson's thinking than using the power of the state to deprive Americans of their civil rights. The only conceivable purpose of Messrs. McCulloch, Obama and the others is to frighten people away from expressing themselves, to chill free and open debate, to suppress support and donations to conservative organizations targeted by this anti-civil rights, to strangle criticism of Mr. Obama, to suppress ads about his support of higher taxes, and to choke out criticism on television, radio, the Internet, blogs, e-mail and daily conversation about the election.
"Barack Obama needs to grow up. Leftist blogs and others in the press constantly say false things about me and my family. Usually, we ignore false and scurrilous accusations because the purveyors have no credibility. When necessary, we refute them. Enlisting Missouri law enforcement to intimidate people and kill free debate is reminiscent of the Sedition Acts - not a free society."
The Republican National Committee then ensured that Blunt's diatribe would receive national play by distributing it as a press release Saturday afternoon.
Since the Republicans press releases were issued, conservative bloggers have seized on the story with renewed vigor. Stop The ACLU is suggesting Obama has committed a federal crime and should be put on trial. The Dakota Voice blog issued a "bitter-clinger alert" highlighting the story, and a blog post hosted by North Dakota's Reiten Television used the breathless headline, "Obama Campaign Trying To Use Police Goon Squads To Intimidate Critics In Missouri."
The best reporting on the issue is being done by Chad Livengood of the Springfield, Missouri News-Leader. Livengood reported Saturday:
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Gov. Matt Blunt and Republicans are accusing Barack Obama's campaign of assembling a "truth squad" with law enforcement officials to intimidate Obama critics from speaking out against the Democratic presidential candidate.
Yet a top Republican National Committee official admits the Democratic prosecutors from across Missouri "haven't specifically said" they would use their prosecutorial powers on Obama's behalf.
Using his taxpayer-funded press office to level a political attack, Blunt issued a statement Saturday to denounce the unproven allegations. ***
On Wednesday, Obama's Missouri campaign announced U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill would lead a group of Democratic lawmakers, prosecutors and one sheriff "who will be proactive in letting voters in the Show-Me State know the truth in the face of the distortions by the McCain campaign," according to a news release.
The group includes prosecutors from St. Louis, Dunklin, Lafayette, Cass, Clay, Ripley, Audrain and Jackson counties volunteering to be surrogates for Obama on their own time. ***
Despite having law enforcement officials on the truth squad, none of them have publicly said they will invoke their official powers to enforce facts about Obama's record.
UPDATE, MON. SEPT. 29: The News-Leader's Livengood updated the story Sunday with still more solid reporting confirming that Gov. Blunt and the RNC have misconstrued the story:
A St. Louis television reporter says a story he reported last week about Barack Obama's campaign forming a "truth squad" of prosecutors has been twisted out of context.
Republicans, including Gov. Matt Blunt, and conservative talk shows hosts have sought to portray Obama's use of prosecutors as campaign surrogates as a form of intimidation to squelch free speech.
But the KMOV reporter who first reported about two St. Louis County prosecutors joining the truth squad says "in the retelling of the story, it got out of control."
"If they think a group has put out a misleading ad, they're basically going to call a press conference and say the ad is misleading," reporter John Mills told the News-Leader on Sunday. "I'm sure the Republicans would do the same thing."
UPDATE NO. 2, MON., SEPT. 29 (11:25 a.m. Pacific): The Springfield News-Leader now reports that Gov. Blunt, who gave an interview to Fox News, still fails to acknowledge that he misinterpreted both the Missouri Obama-Biden campaign's press release and the KMOV-TV report, notwithstanding efforts by the original TV reporter, John Mills, to clarify what happened. Instead, Blunt now claims that the pro-Obama prosecutors have "reversed course." Meanwhile, the non-story story continues to grow, with mentions on Rush Limbaugh's radio program and, this morning, a thorough piece on ABC's "Political Punch" blog by Jake Tapper.