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'Truth By Repetition': The Evolution Of Political Mudslinging

Dec 29, 2012
Originally published on December 30, 2012 6:55 pm

There's always name-calling in national elections, but now there are more ways to get the message out, says political opposition researcher Michael Rejebian. During the past election, he says, the dirt was just flying more often.

Rejebian and Alan Huffman — both former investigative reporters — dig up background on their clients' opponents. While their currency is facts, many of the political attacks this election cycle were doling out something different.

"A lot of the attacks were fact-based, but I feel like facts are more often a supporting actor, if they appear at all," Huffman tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "And what really resonates on the Internet or in an ad is more important than whether or not they're factually based."

In their work, Rejebian and Huffman also look for potentially harmful information about their own clients to prepare them for what's out there, as they said on weekends on All Things Considered in March. They tell Lyden they're still amazed at what candidates assume won't be discovered about themselves.

The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision certainly had an impact on campaigning, particularly in advertising, Huffman says, but it wasn't exactly a boon to those in the field of fact-based background research.

"I think it is going to be more difficult to sort of wedge the truth, based on documentation, into the campaign when you've got huge amounts of money that can just sort of create truth by repetition," Huffman says. "So, in a sense ... it's just about the evolution of opposition research, and it's really not clear yet where it's going."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Today, we're taking a look back at the year. Call it our journal of remembrance of things fairly recently passed; some of them just barely so. But you can't discuss 2012 without bringing up the presidential election.

In March, we interviewed two guys, Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian, who are opposition researchers. A nice way of saying, they're former investigative reporters turned political dirt diggers. We checked in with them to see what they thought about how the facts fared in this election cycle.

MICHAEL REJEBIAN: I think in every national election since the beginning of the republic, you've had name-calling and those kinds of things. But I think because of the infinite number of delivery mechanisms that you had this year and the numbers of groups that were pouring money into these campaigns, those kinds of things were more pronounced. So I don't know that you had anything different than what you normally had. There was just - it was just there more often.

ALAN HUFFMAN: Well, this is Alan. And if you look at the national elections, you could see that there were a lot of facts in play. A lot of the attacks were fact-based. But I feel like facts are more often a supporting actor, if they appear at all. And what really resonates on the Internet or in an ad is more important than whether or not they're factually based.

LYDEN: But you had a few interesting races that you worked for this year since we last spoke to you. Tell me about the candidate you were researching in Arkansas.

HUFFMAN: That was one of the nightmare candidates for an opposition researcher just because in this case, we just found a lot of information really quickly about our candidate that we knew was going to be difficult. A lot more, in fact, than existed on his opponent. And that's always disconcerting because, you know, you're going to have to lay that out for them.

LYDEN: Well, so still, what did you find out?

REJEBIAN: Well, this is Michael again. It was funny because we were - what we found out was that this guy had $750,000 in state and federal tax liens and scores of bank foreclosures on property. And it was funny because I remember we were walking out of the courthouse carrying like a 10-inch stack of documents that we were going to have to go through - tax documents. And Alan looked at me and said, you know, if this guy hadn't paid all this, do you really think he's going to pay us? And sure enough, he didn't. So...

(LAUGHTER)

REJEBIAN: ...you know, you live and learn.

LYDEN: And a guy with that many liens against him and that kind of financial trail behind him, he didn't think that'd be a problem running for office at all, huh?

HUFFMAN: Well, this is Alan. You know, we run into that all the time. The candidates, either it's just ego or just they've been able to skate for long enough on these things that they just assume that no one will find it. I mean, that's why they hire us so that they'll see what is out there that someone could conceivably find. But we're always amazed that people have these things in their past that they often haven't dealt with at all.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. So do you think that your job is going to be getting harder because there's just so much money out there, or is the kind of work you do, digging up dirt, a growth field?

HUFFMAN: You know, it's interesting because we did see the impact of Citizens United and all that money out there in the presidential election, but I don't think it created opportunities for more of that deep background research in general. I think it went into advertising. And, you know, I think it is going to be more difficult to sort of wedge the truth based on documentation into the campaign when you've got huge amounts of money that can just sort of create truth by repetition. So in a sense, you know, it's just about the evolution of opposition research, and it's really not clear yet where it's going.

LYDEN: Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian are former investigative journalists who do opposition research for political candidates. They wrote the book "We're With Nobody." Alan and Michael, thank you. And have a great new year.

REJEBIAN: Thank you, Jacki.

HUFFMAN: You too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.