In the twisted realm of obfuscatory politics, nuances mean a lot. And few places are more twisted than here in Missouri where there has been a kerfuffle over what the top prosecutors in St. Louis city and St. Louis county are up to. It all started with a recent report by St. Louis' CBS affiliate KMOV, which the reporter now claims has been "twisted."
The newsman, John Mills, reported that some Missouri sheriffs, prosecutors and law-enforcement officials have formed "Obama Truth Squads" charged with going after anyone who makes false or misleading claims about their candidate. Intended or not, the report gave the distinct impression that these elected officials -- including prosecutors from St. Louis, Dunklin, Lafayette, Cass, Clay, Ripley, Audrain and Jackson counties -- were going to "hold accountable" Obama critics who "violate ethics laws," but do nothing about McCain's opponents who do the same. Speaking as members of the Obama Truth Squad, the two top prosecutors said "they plan to respond immediately to any ads or statements that might violate Missouri ethics laws."
Immediately the blogosphere lit up. The Drudge Report picked up the story, while Jim Hoft, of the popular Gateway Pundit blog, wrote: "St. Louis and Missouri Democrat sheriffs and top prosecutors are planning to go after anyone who makes false statements against Obama during his campaign. This is so one-sided I can't even begin to describe how wrong this agenda is."
Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt quickly charged the prosecutors with abusing their office in an effort to silence the Obama opposition. Blunt said the Obama campaign was using "Missouri law enforcement to threaten and intimidate his critics" and their inclusion has "attached the stench of police state tactics." Said Blunt: "Enlisting Missouri law enforcement to intimidate people and kill free debate is reminiscent of the Sedition Acts -- not a free society." Blunt's former chief of staff Ed Martin, now president of the conservative American Issues Project, told the Springfield News Leader that "Prosecutors, because they can take away from somebody's liberty, are held to a higher standard...because people are intimidated by them."
Eventually the mainstream media came to the defense of the Obama Truth Squad and its sister media outlet. The News-Leader interviewed John Mills, the KMOV reporter, who now said that "in the retelling of the story, it got out of control," which doesn't say much for his reporting skills. The newspaper also noted that in Mills' report, "there is no mention by St. Louis County Attorney Bob McCulloch and St. Louis City Attorney Jennifer Joyce that they would invoke their prosecutorial powers to stop any perceived mistruths from being spread about the Democratic presidential candidate."
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch then reprinted Joyce's press release, in which she referred to herself as a citizen (no one would care what she thought if she were only a citizen), and claimed the Truth Squad is not about prosecuting people. In response, Frank Donatelli, deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: "I don't think you have to use the power. I think if you just call out somebody and you have the power, you've made your point. It's not that you have to prosecute a guy, but people think you might."
The Post also tracked down what it said was "a McCain Truth Squad in New Hampshire, formed last January, that included several public officials with prosecutorial powers, including the state attorney general," while the News Leader reported that McCain Truth Squads were composed of a district attorney from New Mexico and the South Carolina attorney general.
THIS IS NOT THE first time the Obama camp has used similar tactics to try to silence the opposition. The campaign has twice called for the Justice Department to prosecute the American Issues Project for allegedly violating the Federal Election Campaign Act after it ran attack ads linking Obama to the 1970s domestic terrorist William Ayers. AIP's lawyers, for their part, say their group is a "qualified non-profit corporation" and thus within its legal rights. It is perhaps no coincidence that AIP's Martin is based in St. Louis.
It's not just Republicans that have to fear for the First Amendment in the era of Obama. As the Politico reports:
It's worth noting that this isn't the first time [Obama general counsel Bob] Bauer has called for criminal investigations and prosecutions into the donors to independent groups critical of Obama, including one supporting John Edwards and another supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton. His words did have the effect of scaring their donors and consultants, but haven't yet appeared to result in any prosecution.
Meanwhile Missouri, which has voted for every presidential winner since 1960, remains too close to call. The question remains whether the Truth Squad's tactic of enlisting the mainstream media to publicize its goals worked to silence Obama critics, or whether it reinforced the idea that a Obama presidency would be a disaster for free speech.