Did Sidney Blumenthal cross the line?

Some bloggers accuse Blumenthal, a Hillary advisor, of spreading right-wing lies about Obama. But I get his e-mail blasts and the charge isn't fair.

By Joe Conason
May 2, 2008 11:35PM (UTC)
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First let me confess that I am now and have for many years considered myself a friend of Sidney Blumenthal's, the senior advisor to Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Salon columnist. I should also acknowledge here for the record that, like a number of his other friends, I receive daily e-mails from him on a wide variety of topics. Those e-mails, which have included everything from Doonesbury cartoons to YouTube videos, screen captures, poll results, right-wing screeds and the occasional scholarly article, must number in the thousands by now because sending those blasts has been a Blumenthal habit since long before he joined the Clinton campaign earlier this year.

If this were a more sane campaign, those mundane messages would be of little interest to anyone else. But now Peter Dreier, blogging on the Huffington Post, has suggested that Blumenthal crossed a line by sending out negative articles about Sen. Barack Obama that have appeared in the right-wing media. And Dreier, along with several other bloggers, also seems to believe that the recipients of those e-mails, especially the journalists, ought to have "exposed" Blumenthal for "spreading" the calumnies and criticisms that appeared in those articles -- which included some far-fetched smears of Obama and his associates.


Dreier cannot cite any specific instance that shows Blumenthal's e-mails influenced the coverage of Obama by anyone, let alone the writers who received them or the publications where they work. In fact, at least one of the regular recipients of those messages was an outspoken Obama supporter, and others were at least sympathetic to Obama. For my part, Blumenthal certainly knows that I have sharply criticized both Clintons and the Clinton campaign and haven't endorsed any primary candidate.

No doubt Sid assumed that his friends would keep his correspondence private, but he is also far too experienced to imagine that something sent out to a dozen people or more will remain "secret" for long. I cannot claim to know why he sent any particular article to any reporter he happens to know, but I can say that he never pushed or pressured me to write about any of that material. Although Dreier attempted to make a couple of tenuous connections between Blumenthal and material published by Joe Klein and Jake Tapper, the truth is that neither Tapper nor Klein was on his e-mail list, neither of them could be considered his friend, and neither of them communicates with him on any regular basis.

The clear assumption behind Dreier's blog post is that Blumenthal somehow endorsed the specific content of every negative story he sent out. But that assumption is logically flawed because among the items he has regularly sent out is a daily blogosphere roundup authored by Clinton staffer Peter Daou -- which invariably included negative posts about Clinton herself, her husband, her staff, her campaign, her finances and so on, as well as upbeat posts.


Aside from the fact that I considered Blumenthal's e-mails to be private communications from a friend, I never thought it newsworthy that he sent out material supporting his view of Obama as an untested candidate with vulnerabilities in his background. He didn't have to agree with what the right-wing media was saying in order to think those potential problems were worthy of attention. Whether that is a legitimate argument -- and how far to go in making it -- can be debated. It is certainly an argument that the Obama campaign and its supporters have used to warn against the polarizing Clintons on many occasions.

Glancing over the assortment of people on Sid's list, some of whom are well known, it should be clear that none of them was likely to credit or repeat the scurrilous nonsense spread by Accuracy in Media, to take one of Dreier's examples. Nobody on that list would believe that Obama shares the political views of an alleged communist whom he knew as a child -- or for that matter that he approves of the Weather Underground bombings carried out by Bill Ayers, which took place when the Democratic front-runner was 8 years old.

It is worth noting that Blumenthal's list includes Thomas Edsall, a distinguished journalist and author who has known him since they worked together at the Washington Post. Apparently Edsall, who now serves as political editor of the Huffington Post, where the Dreier article screams across the front page, never considered Sid's e-mails to be worthy of news coverage.


Occasionally some of Blumenthal's friends expressed objections to the items he sent out, and I sometimes replied to him with a mocking jab myself. But those were all private exchanges. I reject the idea that I am obliged to report on my conversations, whether electronic or verbal, with a campaign aide, even on the most controversial matters.

When the Clinton campaign distributed stories from discredited right-wing publications to attack an Obama advisor in March, I wrote a column noting that it had crossed a line and that Clinton herself was coming perilously close to imitating her old enemies. But in that case, her campaign aides were openly endorsing nasty, inaccurate attacks on Gen. Merrill McPeak in the American Spectator and World Net Daily. As I said then, I believe the excesses of nitpicking negative campaigning have diminished both candidates, but especially Hillary Clinton. (I doubt Sid liked that column much -- or many of the columns I've written about this campaign and his candidate, for that matter. But he still sends me clips, links and polls, many of them quite useful to anybody covering this campaign.)


Recitations of fact won't dissuade people who are determined, for their own opportunistic reasons, to promote conspiracy theories about Blumenthal and to impute some kind of "guilt" to anyone associated with him. I know because I've been through all this before on a much larger scale.

It is easy to pretend that Obama's political problems are somehow Blumenthal's fault or the fault of a dozen people who received his e-mails. The only problem is it's not true -- and the accusations won't help Obama.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton Huffington Post