The Whisper Campaign Is Dead

John Hudson
January 18, 2012
The Whisper Campaign Is Dead

If there's one thing the info war between the White House and Jodi Kantor has made clear, it's that waging a successful whisper campaign in Washington is damn near impossible.

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Since Kantor's book The Obamas came out last week, the two sides have launched covert attempts to shape the public's impression of the 368-page tome. The point of a successful whisper campaign, of course, is to remain anonymous while disseminating damaging or calculated information about something. But while electronic communication has made it easier for Kantor and the White House to reach influential reporters and TV producers, it also leaves a digital trail leading to the original author. In this case, both sides have been caught red-handed. 

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On Tuesday, an email Kantor sent out to reporters was leaked to Politico's Dylan Byers, in which Kantor, a New York Times reporter, asks her "friends and colleagues" to help combat negative depictions about her book. Importantly, the e-mail begins with a request. "Can I ask for your help, off the record?" Obviously, the request was not honored by someone.

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"I've had a weird problem with my book release, which is that many folks on cable tv and twitter, who barely seem to have read the book, are characterizing it in ways that just aren't accurate," she wrote. "I realize it's a little annoying to be asked to tweet things, because the medium is spontaneous, but in this case so many people have misdescribed the book that I want to ask for your help."

She goes on to cite favorable reviews of her book by Comedy Central host Jon Stewart, Politico's Jonathan Martin, CNN's Farai Chideya and the  Chicago Tribune. Why did she feel compelled to go off-the-record to dismiss negative conceptions about her book? Perhaps because the White House had been doing the same thing, except, in this case, it was the entity spreading the negative conceptions. 


As Politico's Keach Hagey reported on Friday, "White House emails have continued all week, flooding reporters’ inboxes with more oppo [on Kantor's book]." She said reporters say the opposition documents came from the White House office that traditionally deals with congressional investigations but was apparently fighting the Kantor publicity war. Hagey also noted that the e-mails included one with a " list of errors including things like getting the color of Michelle Obama’s dress wrong — all well before the embargoed book came out on Tuesday."


That list, published first by BuzzFeed, quickly became the laughing stock of DC as many allegations turned out false and only a few  rang true (a couple wrong dates, a wardrobe mixup and mischaracterizing the expression on President Obama's face two years ago). 


Obviously, Washington's penchant for smearing opponents in secret will never go away. But as digital correspondence increases and the blogosphere's willing to report on the correspondence becomes more aggressive, it's getting a whole lot harder to wage a smear campaign and keep it to a whisper.