By now it is a familiar pattern: Political rumor leaked by Web site. Rumor picked up by small daily newspaper. Reporter asks subject of political rumor a question about rumor in press conference. Subject denies rumor. Major dailies run subject's denial of rumor.
The process seems to be underway in Florida amid speculation about whether Gov. Jeb Bush will seek a second term.
It began late last week when a liberal Web site, Media Whores Online, mentioned a story -- which has apparently been talked about in Florida political circles for months -- about trouble on the home front between Bush and his wife, Columba.
Conservative columnist Robert Novak followed up with a weekend column speculating that Bush may not seek a second term, with this cryptic explanation: "Speculation about 2002 also centers on family troubles experienced by the president's brother." Intentionally or not, Novak had fanned the rumor flames.
That was enough for the governor's hometown newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat, to weigh in. In a peculiar piece of political journalism, titled "The Rumor Won't Die, Despite Lack of Facts," Democrat columnist Bill Cotterell fuses the high and mighty with the down and dirty.
"There's a rumor galloping around town, a story which -- if true -- would change the political landscape considerably," he tempts in his column's opening. "If you've heard the titillating tale, you know the one I mean. If you haven't, you're not going to read it here."
Having thus covered his ethical bases, Cotterell goes on to essentially beg for tips. "Well, give us a fact, and there are only about three dozen reporters in town who'd love to prove The Rumor," he writes, adding that he does not believe the rumor himself. "Even if I believed the rumor, it would require 'reckless disregard' to do the story. But if you've got something substantial, my phone number and e-mail address are listed right below."
In fact, the Democrat has certainly been coquettish with the rumors, teasing in one piece that Bush and his wife "are not regularly seen in Tallahassee social circles." Sounds like what the papers used to say about Rudy Giuliani and his now-estranged wife, Donna Hanover.
MSNBC gossip columnist Jeannette Walls also touched on the Jeb story, as did the U.K.'s Guardian. Walls only mentions the Novak column, and a story in South Florida's Sun-Sentinel newspaper that claims Columba Bush does not like life in Tallahassee. But she does point readers to MediaWhores Online, where, she says, "other reports are excerpted."
The Guardian opts to lay out all the gory details of the Media Whores-inspired rumors, albeit in the bottom third of its story. Taken together, these different accounts of a story that may or may not be true give rise to the question: Just when does a story become a story? We can think of no better jury than the folks in the online chat rooms to hash it out.
One Freeper seeking confirmation or denial of the rumor writes, "Since when do we sensor those seeking information as to the the genesis of such political rumors? Gimme a break. All I am doing is trying to get help from FR so I can blast the libs I know who are whacking me on this."
"If this rumor is true it will be on all the Democreeps Web sites," writes one prophetic Freeper in an April post. "They hate Jeb Bush. Just remember the Democreeps tried that with Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush. Much to their chagrin it was untrue!"
"The crucial thing that the story is missing is a few rich ideologues willing to fund an investigation to dig up the dirt and hand it over to journalists who have now adjusted to being spoon fed," write the folks at Democrats.com. "At least, that's the way the far right does it, right?"
Andrew Sullivan: "The Times Scrapes a Barrel"
Drudge Report: "Justice Department Recommends Timothy McVeigh's Execution Be Delayed
Rich Galen: "Congress Has a Very Good Day"
TomPaine.com: "Kids vs. Bombs"
Antiwar.com: "House Defies Bush Plea on UN Funds"
Put 'em on hold. That's the news of the day -- from Terre Haute, Ind., to Washington. In Indiana, it looks as though the execution of Timothy McVeigh will not go ahead as planned next week after the FBI disclosed that it had failed to turn over documents to McVeigh's defense.
Inside the Beltway, Democrats have put the brakes on the nomination of Ted Olson as solicitor general. Democratic senators, including ranking Judiciary Committee member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., expressed concerns that Olson had been less than forthcoming in testimony to Congress about his role in the "Arkansas Project" while he was a member of the board of directors of the American Spectator magazine.
The story broke in Salon last week, and was picked up by the Washington Post Wednesday. Sen. Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, agreed to ice the nomination, at least temporarily, after the Post story appeared.
Online, liberals were heartened by the move, taking it as a sign of life in standing up to the Bush administration. "Democrats on the offensive! Olson confirmation vote put on hold!" screamed the headline at SmirkingChimp.com.
But posters at Plastic.com were less optimistic. "Olson, who was also the lead Republican lawyer for Bush v. Gore, has been a flack for the party for a long time. His nomination is something akin to Clinton nominating someone like, say, James Carville or Joe Conason to FCC chair: he's certainly probably capable, but there's no way anyone can not question his motives. But, barring physical evidence that a nominee has disemboweled someone in cold blood and eaten their spleen, the Democrats in the senate seem fairly ready to rubber stamp all of Governor Bush's folks."
"Are my eyes deceiving me or is that blood I see in the water?" writes American Prospect's Joshua Micah Marshall. "There's very little question that Ted Olson lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee when he told them he was not involved with the Arkansas Project -- the multi-year, scandal-hunting operation funded by [Richard] Scaife-controlled foundations, and run through the American Spectator magazine.
"There's little doubt Olson was lying about his involvement with the Arkansas Project. I say this partly based on conversations with people close to the project. More importantly, though, there are just too many specific, well-documented, published reports of Olson's involvement for him simply to be able to brush it off with a blanket denial. This is one of those Washington Open Lies. Everyone knows it's a lie. The question is simply whether or not he can be caught."