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Newspaper cuts open door to more political trickery

March 20, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

Political consultants aren't exactly rubbing their hands together and snickering. But as the hired guns look over a landscape of closing newspapers and laid-off investigative reporters, they sense an opening that leaves them both excited and queasy.

One operative told me this week about planting attacks on opponents in partisan blogs, knowing the stories could bleed into mainstream news outlets, without leaving any incriminating fingerprints. Another described how he got green reporters to write stories (no campaign cash wasted!) on ads that the candidate had no intention of ever paying to put on TV.

"They don't know any better," the consultant chuckled. "So we can get away with that one again."

The political pros I interviewed talked about stories missed and questions not asked. But they were not entirely gleeful. These are consultants who care about more than just winning. (Hard to believe, but it's true.)

They know better than anyone what happens when the gatekeepers go missing.

"Imagine driving along [Interstate] 5. There used to be a couple highway patrolmen to keep people in line. Now they're gone and everyone knows it," said Chris Lehane, a veteran Democratic consultant. "It can devolve into a Mad Max situation pretty quickly."

The diminution of mainstream news outlets and constant attacks on their credibility leave us confused about where to turn for information about our leaders, agreed Dan Schnur, a one-time Republican consultant who directs USC's Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics.

"Technology and blogs and the like make it much easier to get information out," he said. "But what is missing is the credibility that comes with that message coming through the mainstream media."

Newspapers continue, to a degree, in their historical role of driving and shaping political debate. But they've slashed their staffs, often losing the most experienced (and highest-paid) reporters, because of a ghastly recession and advertising lost to the Internet.

The severity of the problem is hard to assess. How do you get your arms around what hasn't been written?

But the politicos had a few guesses about stories that have been missed or underplayed.

How about more on former state Sen. President Pro Tem Don Perata's slippery diversion of contributions away from a campaign to defeat a ballot initiative and into his personal legal defense fund?

Wouldn't a more robust reporting corps have delved by now into gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman's stock trades when she headed EBay? Everything may be perfectly kosher there, but in the old days, one operative said, someone would have checked by now.

With a humongous pile of cash headed our way from the federal stimulus package, we've seen very little on how California will spend its money. "Where's it going," Schnur asked, "and under what conditions?"

One political consultant told me he regularly encounters less-experienced (and more easily bamboozled) reporters when he works on state and congressional campaigns. He was the one who told me the newbies often didn't bother to check whether ads were really going to have any serious presence on television. The net effect: He got thousands of dollars worth of "free" media, exposing the public to ads the politician would never pay to put on the air.

The consultants cited a few recently departed veteran journalists who wouldn't fall for such funny business: Time magazine's Jay Carney, the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman (the Tribune, like the L.A. Times, is owned by Tribune Co.) and our paper's Dan Morain, who took a buyout last month and went to work for a lawyers' lobbying association.

Morain, with more than 30 years in the business, mastered campaign finance and loved to expose ethical conflicts. "He would just as happily stick it to a Democrat as to a Republican," said an admiring GOP consultant, who said he would be more candid if I kept his name out of the paper. "There aren't as many veteran pros like him anymore."

Yet I fear much of this is lost on the public. I don't know whether to be depressed or infuriated by the folks who occasionally e-mail me, gleeful that another newspaper will cut its staff.

They cite a handful of outrageous exceptions in an attempt to disprove what remains the rule, that the vast majority of political coverage betrays no partisan allegiance. (Both Republican and Democratic operatives told me the same; though I'm certain I'll receive derisive e-mails from people who just know I'm wrong.)

What political and news veterans feel in their guts, a couple of Princeton economists said they have confirmed.

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