The Democratic Donald Trump is coming
For press and public, big risks lurk behind 'opposition research'
It's like a political game of "Who's on First?" (If you're too young to know, that's a reference to an old Abbott and Costello comedy routine.)
In this case, it's high-stakes politics, Washington style. Here's how it goes:
U.S. intel officials used political opposition research (that relied on Russia) to justify wiretaps to investigate Donald Trump's Russia ties.
Congress and an inspector general are investigating the federal investigators who investigated Trump.
Congress and the Justice Department are investigating the federal investigators' use of political opposition research.
The latest punchline?
The political "oppo research" group in question is reportedly oppo-researching the congressional investigators who are investigating the federal investigators who used the oppo research.
In simpler terms: Congressional investigators are being targeted by those they're investigating.
This isn't a new plot in Washington, of course. And news organizations (as well as quasi-news organizations) are often willing repositories for dirt dug up by political and corporate opposition research firms against competitors or enemies. In fact, it's a multibillion-dollar industry.
Groups set up to spin and circulate paid propaganda - or dirt - that's cloaked as something else include think tanks, PR firms, super PACs, LLCs, nonprofits, "strategic communications" groups, global law offices, oppo research firms, "crisis communications" companies and lobby groups.
What is opposition research? There's a huge range, but think of it as a paid, political effort to use any means possible to examine everything you've ever said, done, tweeted, paid for, posted, written or thought, and then make it public in the most negative way possible. An indiscretion in high school. A bill you didn't pay in college. A photo you posted at a party 10 years ago that you wish you hadn't. An ugly comment you made in anger yesterday. A conflict you had with a co-worker or an ex-spouse. A Facebook account where you posted embarrassing things before you got clean. A hurtful letter you wrote after an emotional dispute. (You can fill in your own blanks.)
In general, the work of political opposition firms is perfectly legal. And many reputable journalists argue there's nothing wrong with relying on such research for news stories as long as it's valid.
"The fact is, every news organization in Washington, D.C., has relationships with groups like that," said one national investigative reporter I spoke to. "I'll listen to anybody who has information."
But the practice raises some valid questions:
Should the resulting news stories disclose that political oppo research was used?
Should the news stories reveal on whose behalf the oppo research was conducted? In other words, who's the client who hired the oppo research firm to dig up information on a particular person or topic?
What if there's a direct conflict of interest? What if a political oppo research firm that's part of an investigation by Congress targets the congressional investigators, then supplies dirt about them to a news organization? Should the resulting story disclose that the news organization has worked with the very oppo research firm that stands to benefit from the news story?
I recently posed several queries to Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS. That's the oppo research company at the center of the surveillance controversy in our intel agencies' Russia probe. I asked what news organizations Fusion GPS has worked with, what news and media personalities it has researched for what clients, and whether it's researched any congressional members or staffers. I also wanted to know if, as a former news reporter himself, Simpson thinks news organizations should disclose their relationship with firms like his. As of this writing, I haven't received a response.
I also posed queries to one of the respected investigative journalism groups that has used opposition research firms, including Fusion GPS, according to an insider: ProPublica. (I'm a big fan of some of ProPublica's excellent work.) I asked what their policies are regarding learning and disclosing who the oppo research firm's paying client is. ProPublica president Richard Tofel wouldn't confirm that ProPublica has consulted specifically with Fusion GPS and/or Glenn Simpson, and says the news group doesn't discuss sourcing outside of the stories themselves.
"Almost all sources for almost all stories, are, as you know, interested in the subject of the stories," Tofel wrote me in an email. "A critical role of journalists, I know you would agree, is to weigh those interests against the information being provided, and give readers the most illuminating stories possible. I'm sure your approach is the same."
In my mind, one final question is raised by all this.
When we use oppo research, do we risk becoming tools for paid interests in an unfair way? When there are thousands of meaningful stories that deserve coverage every day, are we being led by the nose by political and corporate interests who are giving us juicy facts that serve their own interests.
For the record, I haven't knowingly consulted with such firms for news stories. (Not that there's anything wrong with it.)
Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy-award winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times bestsellers "The Smear" and "Stonewalled," and host of Sinclair's Sunday TV program "Full Measure."