Politics & Policy

Mdfordirtypolitics…

…and journalism.

Earlier this year a mysterious source turned over some e-mails to a Washington Post reporter. The e-mails seemed to indicate that a man with ties to the Republican governor of Maryland, Robert Ehrlich, was spreading rumors about the governor’s chief political rival on FreeRepublic.com. The Post wrote a series of articles about the e-mails and the man–a state employee named Joseph Steffen–resigned and apologized to the governor.

The Post didn’t do any reporting on the source of the e-mails–someone only identified by the Free Republic screen name “MD4Bush”–but it was apparent from the nature of the e-mails that MD4Bush had entered FreeRepublic.com with the intention of engaging Steffen in a conversation about the rumors, leading him into making damaging statements in private e-mails or “Freepmails,” and then turning those e-mails over to the Post.

The strategy worked like a charm. Washington Post reporter Matthew Mosk demonized Steffen and downplayed aspects of the e-mails that seemed exculpatory, such as when Steffen wrote (in response to a clearly leading question), “I am sure you will understand, I cannot and will not offer suggestions that may be considered unethical concerning what you should do, campaign-wise. This is especially true concerning [the rival’s] personal life.” In over a dozen stories written about Steffen over the subsequent months, this statement appeared only once, in the last paragraph of a sidebar story titled, “Uproar brings focus on role of bloggers.”

While Mosk was playing Judith Miller for some anonymous political operative, WBAL-TV investigative reporter Dave Collins was getting curious about the identity of MD4Bush. He reported a few stories speculating about the identity, but he couldn’t do much–FreeRepublic.com sympathized with the governor’s side but was bound by law to keep any information on MD4Bush confidential.

That is, until persistent questions about how the Post obtained the e-mails led the paper to reveal that, according to a statement from a Post spokesman, “Reporter Matthew Mosk did view the chat room postings between Joe Steffen (NCPAC) and MD4Bush on freerepublic.com a couple of months after the postings had occurred using sign-on information given to him by someone acting on MD4Bush’s behalf.”

In other words, Mosk had to know that MD4Bush was some kind of political operative–at best, someone with a grudge against Steffen and at worst, a foot soldier for the state Democratic party. Yet Mosk chose to conceal that from his readers.

It gets better. By sharing his sign-on information, WBAL reported, MD4Bush might have violated the website user policy that he agreed to, thereby voiding his right to confidentiality.

Free Republic is showing signs that they’re ready to go public with the name, and it doesn’t look good for the state Democratic party:

BALTIMORE–For the first time, the operators of a California-based Web site are revealing they have evidence that an e-mail address from the Maryland Democratic State Party is associated with MD4BUSH.

WBAL-TV 11 News I-Team reporter David Collins said the operators of FreeRepublic.com are not revealing the name behind MD4BUSH. But this is the first time that they are suggesting the state democratic party is associated with the MD4BUSH account on their Web site.

Jim Robinson, the president of the conservative Web site, issued the following statement: “Free Republic has evidence that an mddems.org (Maryland Democratic Party) e-mail address is associated with the MD4BUSH account. This is not just coincidence.”

There are also clues about the identity of the operatives involved:

Last week, the name of Ryan O’Doherty, a former official with the state Democratic Party who left that job in January, surfaced publicly in connection with the MD4BUSH mystery. That happened when the governor’s lawyer forwarded an e-mail with O’Doherty’s name on it to the committee investigating the governor’s firing practices.

Collins reported the e-mail was sent to some of the mayor’s strongest supporters, six hours before the Steffen story broke in February. It encourages them to use the Steffen story to complain about the governor on talk radio.

O’Doherty, in a written statement last week, said he didn’t write the e-mail and claimed that the e-mail address on it is incorrect.

Collins reported that indeed it does appear to be slightly different from an e-mail address O’Doherty publicly used while at the Democratic Party.

But through a public review, 11 News has obtained other e-mails apparently written by O’Doherty while he worked for the party. Those e-mails bear the same address as the one that appeared on the Feb. 8 letter sent to supporters.

When asked about the discrepancy, O’Doherty had no comment.

Collins reported in response to Free Republic’s disclosure, Josh White, the executive director of the state Democratic Party, said how could anyone take the word of a right-wing Website that wants nothing more than to help the governor.

Sounds like a non-denial denial to me.

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the Washington Post has shown very little interest in chasing down this aspect of the story. Operating from a defensive position, the Post’s public statement reads:

The Washington Post had no involvement in any way in the chat room postings between former Ehrlich aide Joe Steffen and MD4Bush on the freerepublic.com website. The Post did not know about them until after they had already occurred, as we have reported in the newspaper.

The Post is denying that it colluded with MD4Bush in tricking Steffen into discussing the rumors. My response to that is there’s a difference between active collusion and passive collusion. While we have no reason to think the Post actively colluded with MD4Bush, i.e. engaged Steffen in the chat rooms, sent the leading e-mails, etc–we know that the Post passively colluded with MD4Bush. Mosk knew MD4Bush was some kind of an operative with an axe to grind. He saw the leading questions. He knew it was a set-up. He didn’t stop and say, “Hey, wait a minute. An operative trying to orchestrate a political fall for the governor–maybe this is the story.” Instead, he concealed that information from his readers and presented the story as an open-and-shut case of Republican dirty tricks.

Under pressure to tell the public what it knows about MD4Bush, the Post included the following in its statement:

As we have also reported in the newspaper, we do not know the identity of MD4Bush. We have tried to find out who MD4Bush is, but we have not been successful.

That reminds me of yesterday when I tried to find the remote control. It helps if you get up off the couch.

Stephen Spruiell reports on the media for National Review Online’s new media blog.

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