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Reporters confess: We use research from political campaigns all the time

061015 Scarry Oppo Research Pic
At issue is a New York Times story published Friday on Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio's past minor traffic violations. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A media controversy swelled over the weekend when the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication, suggested there was something suspect about a New York Times report which appeared to contain research provided by a Democratic opposition research firm.

But several political reporters interviewed by the Washington Examiner media desk were left wondering: What's the scandal here?

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"It's completely standard," said Rebecca Berg, a politics reporter for RealClearPolitics. "Every journalist I know is being pitched opposition research from both sides — some useful, some not. The best reporters take such information under consideration, like they would any tip, but then confirm and report out the story on their own."

At issue is a Times story published Friday on Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio's past minor traffic violations. "Marco Rubio and His Wife Cited 17 Times for Traffic Infractions," the story declared.

The story was mocked by conservatives online and Free Beacon reporter Brent Scher wrote a follow-up story after he found that the records for Rubio's traffic citations had initially been pulled by the Democratically-aligned American Bridge group, and not the Times itself.

"So scary, indeed, that Democrats appear to be feeding opposition research to the Times," Scher wrote.

In a statement to Politico, the Times' Washington bureau chief Carolyn Ryan defended her publication and said the Times had actually hired a "document retrieval service" to obtain the citations.

But even if the Times had utilized the research dug up by a Democratic firm, reporters say that's not uncommon.

"Every reporter gets [opposition research] if they are covering a campaign," said one veteran political reporter. "The difference between a real reporter and a parrot is what they do with the information. You have to deal with it like any tip: Trust but verify, and you have to retrace the steps and report out any piece of intel you get, period."

A politics reporter based in Texas said the same. "I'd say I personally don't see any ethical problem with reporters taking cues from opposition researchers as long as they can independently verify the information they're receiving," he said.

"It's not unusual for researchers on all sides to pitch us with stories, some of which do become ledes," said another politics reporter in D.C. "It would be rare, however, for a news outlet to admit that because it would be admitting the embarrassing fact that many of us have ceded research to the campaigns, we've become so accustomed to being served this stuff on a silver platter."

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The Free Beacon itself has actually engaged in the practice.

In 2014, Free Beacon reporter Alana Goodman published a series of buzzy reports under her byline that relied on documents about Hillary Clinton archived in the University of Arkansas Library. It turned out, however, that the Free Beacon had hired veteran Republican opposition researcher Shawn Reinschmiedt, who helped investigate Goodman's stories.

Scher, who wrote the Free Beacon story challenging the Times on its reporting, said in an email that his contention is with the substance of the Times report, rather than that opposition research could have been used in it.

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"I don't think there is anything wrong with getting tipped off on a story or receiving opposition research," he said. "I think it is embarrassing when The New York Times gets caught reporting on something that was fed to it by a partisan group like American Bridge, especially when the research was on something as irrelevant as Rubio's driving record."

Asked to elaborate on what it means that the Times got "caught," he said it was "embarrassing" that the Times might pursue a story about Rubio's traffic violations. "I don't think the Times had a responsibility to disclose its source but with American Bridge's fingerprints already on the story, you have to think that it might have been smart to do so — or to pass on the story altogether," he said.