February 11, 2005

Borking Goes Digital

“Borking,” for those of you under the age of thirty, refers to the tactic of publicizing negative information –sometimes private, sometimes unproven– about a person in order to stop him or her from gaining or holding political power. Robert Bork, turned down by the U.S. Senate for a seat on the Supreme Court in 1987, was confronted with a barrage of questions and accusations, in advertisements as well as during his confirmation hearings. Some charges turned on constitutional principles. One relied on a list of his video rentals. (In 1988, it became illegal to release such lists without the renter’s written and informed consent.)

This week, no fewer than four cases demonstrate how Borking has gone digital. The dredging up and spreading around of the negative information is now done by many people, and the internet footprints left by a target’s use of the medium has become a valuable source of evidence:

1. Liberals disclosed that “Jeff Gannon,” a man called upon to ask friendly questions during White House press conferences, was the pseudonym of James D. Guckert, who owns several domain names with gay sex themes.

2. The Republican National Committee released a dossier of quotes and votes by new Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, “Chief Democrat Obstructionist.”

3. Conservatives circulated comments attributed to CNN Chief News Executive Eason Jordan at a World Economic Forum session in Switzerland, in which Jordan supposedly said (no transcript or recording exists) that he knew of 12 journalists who were deliberately killed by coalition forces in Iraq.

4. Joseph Steffen, an aide to Maryland Governor Robert Erlich, was forced to resign for being linked through web posts to the dissemination of unsubstantiated charges of infidelity about Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a potential rival to the governor in 2006.

Gannon resigned from the organization he represented while attending White House press conferences. The Democrats and Senator Reid have objected to the RNC release for four days running. Jordan is the subject of a nascent Harvard case study on “blogstorms.” Steffen will be the subject of a probe by the Maryland legislature.