Thursday, October 9, 2014

Up to the Edge

Last Wednesday, Portland Press Herald made a subtle post-publication revision to an opinion column that it had published the previous day. And while the change was pretty minor--involving only a few words--it speaks volumes about the peculiar, corrosive dynamics of the US Senate race in Maine.

Backing up for a moment: On September 27, PPH ran a piece by lefty activist and columnist Mike Tipping detailing Sen. Susan Collins's role in the lead-up to last year's federal government shutdown, puncturing the Collins campaign's carefully crafted narrative with vote citations, published quotes and a reference to a Politico article.

Along the way, he noted that the senior senator's failed "compromise plan" to end the shutdown was built around a tax cut for medical device manufacturers, adding:

Why did Collins target this particular provision? It's hard to say, but it may have something to do with the fact that the pharmaceutical and medical device industry has given heavily to Collins’ re-election campaign. Four months before she proposed the repeal, their top lobbyists had even hosted a high-dollar fundraising luncheon on her behalf.
Three days later, PPH ran a response from the Collins campaign which led with the claim that:
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Shenna Bellows and her partisan left-wing allies...have resorted to false attack ads, misleading letters to the editor and, sadly, outright lies.

The most recent example is Mike Tipping’s Sept. 27 column.

But instead of taking on any of those supposed lies--or tackling the claims Tipping actually made--Collins's proxy took the conversation in a different direction, focusing on praise from Collins's colleagues that was entirely beside the point.

And after strongly implying that Collins's plan--and the medical device tax that was its centerpiece--passed into law (it did not), the senior senator's surrogate noted that her, "framework did include a repeal of the medical device tax, as Mr. Tipping pointed out while alleging some sort of illegal campaign kickback."

That summarization of Tipping's claims--that he was suggesting, let alone alleging, illegality--strikes me as just plain false. And it struck Tipping the same way. He was clearly speculating rather than concluding. And he was pointing to the tangled relationship between money and power inside the beltway rather than suggesting an explicit quid pro quo.

But instead of recapping this discussion neutrally--or even reframing it in a negative light--the Collins campaign had simply replaced the substance of his comment with a more nefarious conclusion that was easier to bat down.

And they had done so, remember, in the context of a piece attacking the credibility of Collins's foes and purporting to respond to "outright lies."

It's not unusual for political campaigns to caricature the arguments of their opponents or stretch the bounds of truth in service of political attacks. But taking shots at the credibility of your critics based on arguments they haven't actually made requires a certain amount of moxie. And it's the kind of cynical tactic that cries out for media exposure: Readers and voters need to understand that the person shouting "liar" may in fact be the one who's not telling the truth.

But what happened next is what's most illuminating.

Faced with a swirl of responsibilities to his readers, his writers and the integrity of the paper, Press Herald Opinion Editor Greg Kesich went back into the piece to remove the false claim about Tipping, essentially conceding that the Collins camp's credibility attack itself didn't stand up to scrutiny.

But he did so in the quietest way possible, appending a small "clarification" to the bottom of the article that omits any suggestion that the Collins camp had mischaracterized Tipping's words in the first place--even though the question of who's telling the truth was central to the piece and Kesich's intervention was a key data point in that debate.

In a phone interview, Kesich explained the step, telling me that the word "illegal" was "too strong" and noting that the Collins camp, "took the most extreme version" of what Tipping had written.

At the same time, he characterized the change as essentially small potatoes and really no big deal.

When I pressed him, pointing out that his decision to go back in to revise the piece after publication suggested that he must have been pretty uncomfortable with the language, he agreed, but noted that all the same, the Collins camp's claim was "pretty close to the edge."

And there you have the Collins campaign strategy in a nutshell: To make false claims about its opponents that are close enough to the edge so as not to draw the attention or raise the ire of the somnambulant, pliant Maine press.

So far, so good.

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