Opinion: Columnists

David Freddoso: Kentucky shocker: McConnell is campaigning

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Mother Jones magazine briefly shook up the political world this week by posting online a secretly recorded meeting of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his campaign staff, taken at his campaign headquarters in Louisville.

The magazine provide cuts of audio from a meeting of McConnell and his campaign staff in a February briefing on the opposition research against potential opponents -- including actress Ashley Judd, who was at that time expected to launch a campaign against McConnell.

Problem is, the recording may have been made illegally by someone not a party to the conversation. Mother Jones released a statement that "it is our understanding that the tape was not the product of a Watergate-style bugging operation."

The vague language could signify anything -- an attempt to protect a disgruntled McConnell insider, plausible deniability of a violation of Kentucky's wiretap statute, or just genuine uncertainty as to the recording's provenance.

The meeting in question was held in a private office conference room ("not a shared space," a McConnell campaign source told me) with eight to 10 longtime McConnell insiders. The only innocent explanation for the recording is that one of them made it. And stranger things have happened in politics.

But even if the recording was not obtained "Watergate-style," it was at least transcribed in a sufficiently "third-rate" manner to merit the description. The Mother Jones transcript has a presenter inexplicably (and nonsensically) say of McConnell's government-employed legislative assistants, "thank them three times" for producing the opposition research. But listen to the audio, and the actual quotation is this: "[T]his reflects the work of a lot of folks ... a lot of LAs, in their free time."

Oops. Based on their own error, Mother Jones' Nick Baumann and Adam Serwer speculated that McConnell's staff was campaigning on the taxpayers' clock -- which would be illegal. ABC News Online, reproducing the same erroneous transcription, did the same. Much of the national Democratic Party machine took to Twitter on Tuesday to echo the accusation.

If this recording was made by someone not present in the room, then it is legally (and morally) quite unlike the Romney "47 percent" tape. The Romney tape had far more news value because it demonstrated the candidate's ghastly and stereotypical view of the unwashed masses. And that recording at least occurred in a public restaurant with wait-staff present, even if it was officially at a private event.

This new Mother Jones recording does have some news value in that it illustrates how all political campaigns operate. But weigh that against the potential illegality of bugging someone's private space -- and in this case, the space of a public officeholder. Such an act has public policy implications and holds forth the potential for blackmail. In Kentucky, illegal wiretapping can get you five years in prison.

Should "real journalists" encourage such subterfuge by posting illegal (or even "plausibly deniable") recordings online? If the answer is a blanket "yes," then the political dirty-tricksters have been wronged, James O'Keefe deserves a Pulitzer, and cocaine-addicted stock-traders are perfectly justified to complain about the violence committed by their own suppliers in their own neighborhoods.

If this recording was made illegally, then Mother Jones is (at least morally speaking) an accomplice to a crime after the fact. That might actually be a price worth paying in some cases -- say, if McConnell had been caught on tape taking a bribe, or at the very least deriding Kentucky voters as toothless rubes who mindlessly cling to their guns and their insufferable bluegrass music.

But in those terms, the tape is a big nothing-burger. Mother Jones has cited the recording's "obvious newsworthiness" to justify its publication, but the newsworthiness isn't that obvious at all.

In the tape, McConnell's staff brainstormed in private about how to use Ashley Judd's fondness for San Francisco against her. Her mockery of Kentucky in public speeches given in Tennessee came up. So did her struggles with mental illness, voluntarily disclosed in a book from which she profited financially.

So did her view that having children is "selfish," and that Christianity is an instrument of patriarchy. How is this not fair game when running a campaign in the Aqua Buddha State?

Breaking: Politicians do opposition research. What's more, this might not be sufficiently earth-shattering to justify the publication of an illegal recording. If it turns out that laws were broken to bring us this Kentucky shocker, then someone at Mother Jones made a pretty bad editorial decision.

David Freddoso (dfreddoso@washingtonexaminer.com) is the editorial page editor for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @freddoso.

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