On Monday evening, the political blogosphere was rocked by the unprecedented publishing of a 200-page opposition research book on Mitt Romney written by the John McCain campaign for the 2008 GOP presidential primary. Who decided to release this information to the public? It wasn’t ThinkProgress; it wasn’t Newsweek or the Washington Post or Mother Jones. It was by a website which currently features the headlines “Martial Artist Kicks Down Banana Tree,” “Baby Flummoxed By New Sound,” and “Jessica Simpson Wearing A Giant Deformed Penis Mask.” I kid you not.
BuzzFeed, the name of the site in question, is the latest venture for Politico’s JournoList-er Ben Smith, as previously reported by John Nolte. Smith is heading up the “Politics” section of BuzzFeed, and while he claims objectivity, the case of this leaked document reveals exactly how he plans to use the site to hurt the GOP and aid Obama’s reelection campaign.
The “About” page of BuzzFeed presents the site as nothing more than a place where readers can find interesting and viral Internet content:
We feature the kind of things you’d want to pass along to your friends: an outrageous video that’s about to go viral, an obscure subculture breaking into the mainstream, a juicy bit of gossip that everyone at the office will be talking about tomorrow, or an ordinary guy having his glorious 15-minutes of fame.
The site’s niche naturally extends to its political page, headed up by Smith. The political news cycle is chock full of bizarre and hilarious information that normally doesn’t end up on NPR–Mitt Romney sparring with pop group LMFAO, Herman Cain singing “Imagine” with pizza-themed lyrics, or Rick Perry blasting a coyote while jogging, for instance. Thus, a site to present this kind of offbeat content (the categories on BuzzFeed include “LOL,” “WTF,” and “Fail”) sounds like a great place to unwind, to set aside all the partisan bickering and just check out posts “for the lulz,” as we whippersnappers say.
And that is exactly why Smith is at BuzzFeed. His aim is anything but “for the lulz,” yet that facade provides him better cover than “objectivity” could ever provide at Politico. It takes a profound stretch of the imagination to accept the premise that an individual can truly be an impartial observer with no interest in outcome or another, so much so that Politico, like much of the rest of the mainstream media, has become a tarnished brand. Its readership is down and its credibility in question, which will ultimately mean a diminished role in shaping the 2012 campaign narrative.
However, it’s far easier to believe that bloggers are non-partisan when their apparent goal is just to highlight absurdities and have a little fun. That is the value of BuzzFeed to Smith; he is creating the “Daily Show” of social media. He has it better than the Daily Show; he is free to run whatever story or image or video he wants regardless of its timeliness, as evidenced by the Romney oppo research.
While Smith and the author of the Romney piece, Andrew Kaczynski, were gleefully tweeting quotes from the document, one Twitter user called them out for their partisan hackery:
“Find me the oppo doc on Obama,” he says, as though he’d ever consider embarrassing The One in this way. His bluff falls apart under scrutiny; it raises quite a few uncomfortable questions for him and his “viral” outfit. Kaczynski states that the Romney research was merely “found online,” though it doesn’t say where. Was it publicly available? If not, what was the source? Was it someone inside or with access to these files from the McCain campaign? If not, is Andrew Kaczynski actively searching for private opposition research on Barack Obama as he clearly did here for Mitt Romney? If so, why didn’t Kaczynski and Smith tap the source for Obama’s file, as he or she would almost certainly have access to it as well as Romney’s?
And here’s the simple beauty of Smith’s operation at BuzzFeed. You can’t ask those questions. Just as Jon Stewart cries “I’m just a guy who makes funny faces!” when he comes under scrutiny, left-wingers will almost certainly say “Are you really asking BuzzFeed for their sources? BuzzFeed, the site with the Lolcats?” when we push back against a story like this. And while conservatives can’t openly push back, BuzzFeed can affect other left-wing news sources. Already, the Huffington Post has followed suit and posted a 500-page oppo research document on Rick Perry from Texas Democrats.
You have to hand it to Ben Smith. He is politicking for Obama masterfully. Politico’s effectiveness is fading; he wisely jumped ship. BuzzFeed already gets about three times as much traffic as the news site, and it’s a perfect Trojan horse for conservative bashing. Because its M.O. isn’t reporting the latest stories but presenting “viral” content just “for the lulz,” Smith can strike even lower blows with BuzzFeed than Politico, drudging up embarrassing documents, videos, and factoids about GOP candidates regardless of their timeliness and/or newsworthiness. Then, Smith can go on Twitter and bluff, “Send us the Obama oppo file and we’ll post it, too,” knowing that no one is going to risk their reputation butting heads with a purported comedy site.