31 October 2010

Political Hangups

Once again in this general election campaign, political shenanigans were caught on tape because the caller failed to hang up.

In early October, the Jerry Brown for Governor (D-CA) campaign called Scott Rate, a LAPD police union leader and left a message.  The Brown campaign caller thought that he or she hung up but the line was not disconnected.  The answering machine caught Brown Campaign officials refer to his Republican California gubernatorial opponent Meg Whitman as a whore.  Such misogynist epithets may be commonplace in politicos’ locker room talk, but it takes on much more meaning when applied to a female opponent.  When it came up in a gubernatorial debate later in the week, Brown first tried to sluff it off as being a mistaken recording.  It took three pointed questions for Brown to apologize.  While this sexist slight and his reluctance to make amends was revealing of Attorney General Brown’s character, I found it just an embarrassing campaign gaffe.

The news stemming from an Alaskan answering machine are much more concerning.  A reporter from Anchorage CBS affiliate called Republican Senate nominee Joe Miller’s campaign spokesman and left a long message.  He thought that his I-Phone had hung up but it had not disconnected.  The tape reveals the reporter and the news editor discussing how to create negative news about Joe Miller.  One angle that the news staffs considered was checking the Miller campaign volunteers to see if any registered child molesters were working on the campaign.  The other concept was to seize upon any chaos which might occur at a Miller campaign rally amongst supporters and spread it on Facebook and Twitter, ala the Rand Paul Kentucky Senate debate tussle.  When the reporter realized that the call had not disconnected ,he sent the Miller campaign spokesman a text message saying, “Damn iPhone… I left you a long message. I thought I hung up. Sorry.”

I guess that CBS did not learn from the Rather Gate debacle of 2004 about orchestrating an October Surprise with ruse news to torpedo a candidate.  The creation of conflict is like the ABC News crewmember who was aggressive taunting protestors to the Ground Zero mosque in August, 2010.  

The quintessential dirty trick was the Red Pepper imbroglio, which involved a slandering booklet which attacked Senator Claude Pepper (D-FL) on the eve of the 1950 Senate Primary.  Time reported about a redneck speech by Peppers opponent George Smathers (D-FL):

Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, he has a brother who is a known homo sapiens, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy.

This redneck speech was never actually given but it entered American political lore and summarized the election eve smear that can kill a campaign’s momentum without time to adequately refute the questionable charges.

In the age of the Internet, politicians can quickly try to respond to smears late in the campaign.  But it is impossible to unring a bell.  This sort of ersatz October Surprise in Alaska seems like overt electioneering by the media.  I wonder if the Senator Lisa Murkowski (?-AK) campaign will complain?  I would not be waiting by the phone since these dirty tricksters have difficulty hanging up.

UPDATE 11/02  Despite the initial denials by KTVA officials that the Joe Miller answering machine recordings were not what they seemed and that the recordings had been tampered, the Anchorage CBS affiliate fired the news director as well as the assignment editor.

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