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C-SPAN's blasts from the past

When Christine O'Donnell seemingly came out of nowhere to win her party's Senate nomination in Delaware, journalists quickly unearthed a treasure trove of information about her.

Their not-so-secret source: the C-SPAN Video Library.

The online archive, available for free, has turned out to be a deep sea in which reporters can fish for embarrassing or revealing tidbits.

"C-SPAN has always been the network of record for following political candidates, and now the entire past nearly quarter-century is at your fingertips," says Robert Browning, the archive director.

Talking Points Memo, for instance, reported that it "has unearthed a 1997 C-SPAN video that shows O'Donnell voicing concerns that a drag queen ball 'celebrates the type of lifestyle which leads to the disease.'"

Separately, "In a C-SPAN appearance the Huffington Post unearthed from December 1996, the Delaware Republican said it was a 'misconception that you, quote unquote, can't legislate morality.'"

And Politico reported that "C-SPAN's video archives reveal O'Donnell's participation in a December 2003 Intercollegiate Studies Institute event held at the Heritage Foundation."

The three-time Republican candidate made a half-dozen C-SPAN appearances dating back to 1995. Some of these clips were played on NBC, MSNBC and CNN.

That's hardly the only contest where the archive has been a boon for both journalists and oppo researchers.

In the Senate race in Pennsylvania, the Allentown Morning Call reported comments that don't look so hot in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown: "A third video surfaced Tuesday showing Republican Pat Toomey praising derivatives, saying in 2003 that over-the-counter derivatives are "perhaps the most important, creative and innovative development in finance in the last 30 years....the DSCC found a series of CSPAN videos of Toomey defending the type of derivative he's aimed to distance himself from." That's the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

And here's The Washington Post on Mark Kirk, the Republican Senate nominee in Illinois: "Kirk, whose campaign has emphasized his military service as a reservist, similarly misidentified the award during a House committee hearing in March 2002. In a remark recorded by C-SPAN, he said, 'I was the Navy's Intelligence Officer of the Year."'

Not as sexy as witchcraft, but still.

In the media age, if you say something in front of a camera, it's fair game. The challenge has always been to find these blasts from the past. C-SPAN makes it that much easier for journalists on deadline.

Woodward scores but loses exclusive

The scoop artist keeps getting scooped.

Bob Woodward's carefully choreographed rollout of his new book on the Obama White House was disrupted Tuesday night when the New York Times got hold of a copy and posted a story on its Web site.

The Washington Post, where Woodward has worked since his Watergate days, rushed a previously prepared story online just after midnight, and published it in the Wednesday paper after missing the first edition.

"We're in an impossible position," says Steve Luxenberg, an associate editor at The Post who handled "Obama's Wars" for the paper. "We prefer to honor our agreements than to publish something before we're permitted."

Woodward's best-selling books always make news, and this one -- a behind-the-scenes narrative of internal battling over the war in Afghanistan -- is no exception. But just as regularly, Woodward's complicated publicity arrangements get derailed by a leak -- which may help the publisher, Simon & Schuster, but leaves The Post a step behind.

Mindful of that track record, "we had a news story prepared in advance for the possibility another news organization would get a copy in advance and break a story," Luxenberg says. He says he got a message from Woodward about the Times having the book about 8:15 p.m. Tuesday and quickly retrieved his story from a flash drive.

The Post and Times pieces had an immediate impact, and by Wednesday morning White House officials were providing reporters with reaction.

The Post plans to run three excerpts from "Obama's Wars" beginning Monday, which is the official publication date. That, in turn, is tied to ABC interviews that Woodward has done with Diane Sawyer, which will air that night on "World News" and "Nightline" and the next day on "Good Morning America." For several of his previous books, Woodward had a similar arrangement with CBS's "60 Minutes."

The arrangements have put The Post in the unenviable position of sitting on news reported by its own journalistic superstar, although it is not unusual for publishers to embargo the contents of newsworthy books. But to do otherwise, Luxenberg maintains, "is to risk looking like we were being commercial, promoting the book's interest." Some critics say The Post does that anyway by giving Woodward's books a front-page splash, although the fact that other news outlets hotly pursue them shows they are widely deemed newsworthy. The Woodward revelations about the Obama book were all over television Wednesday morning.

Woodward now works as a contract employee for a nominal salary, having taken a buyout from The Post, where he once served as an assistant managing editor.

In 2008, when Woodward published "The War Within," his fourth book about George W. Bush and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Fox News got an advance copy and ran a story online. The Post reacted by publishing a Luxenberg piece the next morning.

When Woodward published "State of Denial" in 2006, the Times and "NBC Nightly News" ran stories before The Post's excerpts began. The NBC newscast got clips of a Woodward interview that "60 Minutes" had put out for promotional reasons, scooping CBS in the process.

Perhaps the greatest embarrassment came in 2005, when Vanity Fair scooped The Post on a secret that Woodward had kept for 33 years: that Mark Felt was his famous Watergate source Deep Throat. Woodward, his former partner Carl Bernstein and his onetime editor Ben Bradlee all felt bound by their promise of confidentiality to Felt, and were not convinced that the 91-year-old former FBI agent was lucid enough to release them from that pledge. Felt's lawyer brought the story to Vanity Fair.

Reporter fed up with Yahoo

John Cook is leaving Yahoo.

Here's why you should care.

Cook is a former Chicago Tribune reporter who specializes in digging up documents. He decamped for Gawker, and had some success marrying his investigative approach to Gawker's gossipy style. After Freddie Mac's acting chief financial officer committed suicide, for instance, Cook obtained evidence that investigators were looking into whether agency officials had concealed or misrepresented information related to the banking bailout. (The probe apparently went nowhere.)

In April, as Yahoo was hiring a number of mainstream journalists for its newsy Upshot blog, Cook signed on. But the relationship went sour.

Jeff Bercovici at Daily Finance, a friend of Cook, reports that he was turned off by Yahoo's cautious culture:

"In one instance, Cook was forced to bowdlerize a quotation from New York Times reporter James Risen; he was told that referring to masturbation, even euphemistically, was unacceptable. On similar grounds, he was prohibited from writing about the conservative website Free Republic hosting child pornography. Most glaringly, he was told that a proposed story on the Obama Administration raising the salary of White House staffers by 9% lacked the necessary balance; it was killed."

Cook told him: "I really valued being able to write what I think without somebody worrying about whether it will upset somebody, or meets the sort of balancing test that newspapers apply to themselves."

Andrew Golis, who runs The Upshot, wrote on his blog Wednesday. "John's a brilliant reporter, but he decided that he prefers the license Gawker gave him to add his opinions into his reporting to the scale and credibility Yahoo! News could offer."

Cook is heading back to Gawker. The question for Yahoo, AOL and other portals edging their way into the content business is whether other journalists will see them as a liberating leap from the MSM--or large corporations with overzealous editing.

By Howard Kurtz  | September 23, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
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