By Niall Stanage and Bob Cusack - 08/08/12 09:00 AM EDT
Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) citing of anonymous sources to rip Mitt Romney three months before the election has cast a bright light on how politicians use disputable claims to further their agendas.
The Senate majority leader triggered a media frenzy when he said he had inside information that Romney didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years. He initially cited a Bain investor who called his office, and later suggested he had more than one source.
Reid has repeatedly criticized Romney for not releasing more of his tax returns, but has not provided proof or revealed the names of his sources. Leading Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), have pounced, calling Reid a “liar.” Romney has challenged him to “put up or shut up.”
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker has given Reid’s assertion a “Four Pinocchios” rating, while Politifact essentially said the same thing, labeling it “Pants on Fire.”
Reid’s office did not comment for this article.
Coincidentally, Reid’s career was put in jeopardy when he was quoted by anonymous sources for making racially insensitive remarks in Game Change, the blockbuster book on the 2008 presidential election.
Reid reportedly praised Obama’s appeal — on the basis that the then-senator from Illinois was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect.”
The Nevada Democrat quickly apologized for the comments, and the controversy faded.
Of course, Reid is not the only lawmaker to have cited unnamed sources.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) obtained portions of sealed wiretap applications relating to the botched gun-tracking operation known as “Fast and Furious” from anonymous sources.
The documents helped Issa build his case that Attorney General Eric Holder should be held in contempt of Congress. House GOP leaders subsequently allowed a contempt measure to reach the floor, where it passed, 255-67.
Republicans say the situations are different, pointing out that Issa had proof, while Reid does not.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this week defended Reid, while the White House has sought to keep some distance.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, who has been critical of journalists’ use of anonymous sources, said this week that Reid “speaks for himself” and had not been directed by Team Obama on the issue.
Republicans don’t believe Carney, saying it is clear that Obama wants his campaign and surrogates to keep hammering Romney on taxes in an effort to deflect attention from the ailing economy.
The political firestorm shows no sign of burning itself out.
Tony Fratto, a former deputy press secretary for President George W. Bush, complained that there is no real price to be paid for someone in Reid’s position making such an allegation while declining to identify his source.
“The Senate needs to find a way to censure Harry Reid if it is proven that he went ahead and made that allegation without any proof at all,” he said.
But Reid’s former chief spokesman, Jim Manley, who now works for Quinn, Gillespie and Associates, said, “This conversation could have been finished a long time ago, if they had just released the tax returns … where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
Reid’s actions raise broader questions about politicians who make allegations based upon unnamed sources.
Bob Steele, a professor of journalism ethics at DePauw University, said that the media faces challenges when “a prominent elected official decides to throw a grenade into the ring in the midst of a presidential campaign.”
Steele added that Reid, by commenting so publicly on Romney’s taxes, made it impossible for reporters to ignore the story.
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen said, “I think Reid has made reckless charges — reckless because they are evidence-free.”
Rosen added that part of the media’s challenge rests with “the people who are charged with deciding what’s important in election coverage — editors, producers.” Those people, he said, “have to decide how to handle an ongoing story without contributing too much to the spread of the charges.”
In June, Republicans accused Reid of making things up after he said that there was a split between House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on the highway bill.
Reid told reporters, “You have heard as I heard that there’s a battle going on between Cantor and Boehner as to whether or not there should be a bill. Cantor, of course — I’m told by others that he wants to not do a bill and make the economy worse because he feels that’s better for them.”
Cantor’s and Boehner’s offices pushed back immediately. Cantor’s spokeswoman said Reid’s statement was “ridiculous and patently false.” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said, “That’s bulls--t.”
Last month, an intraparty battle ensued following controversial assertions, made by Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and four other GOP legislators, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s top adviser is an infiltrator for the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a speech on the floor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, “When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it.”
The House Republicans did not back off, though one of them, Rep. Trent Franks (Ariz.), said the matter could have been handled better.
Meanwhile, Carney on Tuesday pushed back on a media article based on unnamed sources. The Drudge Report indicated that Obama told a supporter that Romney is considering retired four-star Gen. David Petraeus as his vice presidential pick.
Carney said, “I can say with absolute confidence that such an assertion has never been uttered by the president.”
He added, “Be mindful of your sources.”