New York magazine's Jonathan Chait once wrote of the Washington Free Beacon, “Hackneyed spin, routine misstatements, and paranoid hyperbole are not the accidental by-product of ideological zeal but its stated goal.” I generally concur, but this week I'm siding with the conservative website in the media-ethics dispute over its hiring of a Republican opposition researcher to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton in the University of Arkansas Library archives.
The Free Beacon has scored a couple of big scoops in those archives. In February, staff writer Alana Goodman penned “The Hillary Papers,” which reported on a number of previously unpublished Hillary-related documents in the papers of the late Diane Blair, one of her best friends and advisors. According to Blair’s journals, Hillary had once told her that she supported single-payer health care (something Hillary has long said she doesn’t support) and described Monica Lewinsky to her as a “narcissistic loony toon.” Last week, Goodman wrote “The Hillary Tapes,” which revealed the existence of a previously unknown audio recording from an early 1980s interview in which Hillary can be heard suggesting than an alleged child rapist she once successfully defended was in fact guilty. Granted, Goodman put the most negative spin she possibly could on her findings, but they were good, solid journalistic scoops—shedding new light on possibly the most (over-)covered journalistic subject in the world.
Over this past weekend, Business Insider’s Hunter Walker revealed that it wasn’t Goodman who found these scoops in the University of Arkansas archives but rather a man named Shawn Reinschmiedt. As BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer reported Monday, Reinschmiedt is a former research director of the Republican National Committee whose private “political intelligence” firm was paid $150,000 for “research consulting” by the Center for American Freedom, the nonprofit that funds the Free Beacon, in 2012. All of which has now led Media Matters chairman David Brock to write an open letter urging “credible media outlets to refrain from validating The Free Beacon’s journalistic legitimacy” owing to its “hidden reliance on an opposition research firm headed by GOP operatives to obtain the information relied on for its recent anti-Clinton stories.”
How does Reinschmiedt’s involvement in these stories undermine them? Sure, if I were Alana Goodman I’d be a bit embarrassed putting my byline on (and receiving plaudits for) a couple of scoops someone else unearthed. Then again, she’s hardly the first reporter to write a damaging story about a pol based on material supplied by an oppo researcher. Remember, it was a Democratic oppo researcher (who also happened to be Jimmy Carter’s grandson) who tipped off Mother Jones to the “47 percent tape” that sank Mitt Romney. The Free Beacon did cut out the traditional middleman in this transaction, which is usually facilitated (and paid for) by a third party. But the Free Beacon has never been, and never will be, a traditional journalistic enterprise. It’s an avowedly partisan- and para-journalistic enterprise, and while it’s impossible to buy its claims that it’s merely a conservative analogue to liberal media outlets like TPM or Mother Jones—neither of which put oppo-research firms on retainer—it doesn’t pretend to play by the same rules as most publications.
All that matters is whether the information Reinschmiedt unearthed, and Goodman wrote up, is accurate. So far, no one is disputing it. Brock, who was a rabid Hillary critic before he became a rabid Hillary defender, equates the Free Beacon’s reports to The American Spectator’s infamous “Arkansas Project,” on which he cut his journalistic teeth back in the 1990s when he was a right-wing hit man. “The American Spectator magazine contracted with Republican investigators to supply the organization with negative information on the Clintons which was then packaged as the magazine’s own investigative reportage,” he writes. “In the current arrangement between The Washington Free Beacon and M Street Insight [Reinschmidt’s firm], I fear we are seeing this disgraceful history on the right repeating itself.” But the “Republican investigators” on whom Brock and the Spectator relied for the Arkansas Project were feeding them a steady stream of bullshit—from crazy tales of Clinton-sanctioned drug smuggling to allegations of murder, all based on hearsay from and interviews with kooks. In the Free Beacon’s case, Reinschmidt has produced the goods on Hillary in the form of documents and audio tapes. If he’d given the fruits of his research labor to the New York Times (or The New Republic), no one would object.
Well, the University of Arkansas Library might object. Last week, the university suspended the Free Beacon’s library privileges on the grounds that it had published the audio tapes of Clinton early '80s interview without receiving permission from the library—something that Reinschmidt, according to Business Insider, had promised he would do as a condition of being granted access to the archives. I can see the university’s—and Clinton partisans’—point on this one, and the Free Beacon did hand them the slimmest reed on which they can legitimately hang their denial of access. Still, journalists should be appalled by it. I can’t imagine many journalists going to the barricades to get the Free Beacon’s library privileges restored, but I do hope that none of us would be so silly as to castigate the publication for breaking those rules in order to reveal accurate, interesting information. It’s a good bet that there will be plenty of ridiculous stories published about Hillary—in the Free Beacon and other outlets, partisan and nonpartisan—in the coming months and years. Here’s an instance in which the information is actually truthful. The only shame I can see in this whole situation is that Shawn Reinschmidt didn’t get the proper credit for it, though the hefty check he likely received for his services should surely salve the wound.
This article has been updated. I originally wrote that a Democratic oppo researcher "gave" Mother Jones the 47 percent tape. As David Corn's story about how he got the tape makes clear, it's more accurate to say the researcher "tipped off" Mother Jones to the existence of the tape. So I changed the wording accordingly.
What's more, I’ve heard from several people familiar with the Free Beacon’s editorial processes who contend that my characterization of Alana Goodman’s work was unfair. According to these people, Goodman did a substantial amount of reporting for both "The Hillary Papers" and "The Hillary Tapes"—working with Reinschmiedt to go through the 100 boxes of Blair documents during a trip to Arkansas the pair took in January; and, during that same trip, finding the tapes that, in March, Reinschmiedt returned to Arkansas to obtain from the library. I think the involvement of Reinschmiedt—an opposition researcher on the Free Beacon’s payroll whose involvement in the stories was concealed by the Free Beacon until Business Insider revealed it—makes the question of who deserves credit for those stories inherently (and unnecessarily) murky. And the point of my piece was that, the involvement of Reinschmiedt aside, the stories should be judged—and judged favorably—on their own merits. But it also looks like I may have been too stinting in the credit I gave Goodman.