Sat, Oct 25, 2014 ●
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The Universal Notebook: Cutler's anonymous critics keep the biggest secret

Opinion

The Universal Notebook: Cutler's anonymous critics keep the biggest secret

Political campaigns have been doing opponent research and feeding unfavorable and unflattering tips to the news media for as long as I have been part of the media.

But independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler is being targeted by a form of opposition research I have never seen before – an anonymous website called "The Secret File on Eliot Cutler," filled with links to articles and videos that the creators of the site believe shed a negative light on Cutler’s candidacy.

“He’s a phony and a fraud,” the website states. “He’s rewriting and revising his history and profile to fit a carefully created campaign persona, fudging the facts, ignoring the truth and fooling the voters.”

"The Secret File on Eliot Cutler" attempts to cast doubt on everything from his professional career to how long he has lived in Maine. It even features a contest with a $500 prize for anyone who can find a photograph of Cutler wearing a barn jacket (which his online critics see as a Scott Brown-like attempt to make Cutler look folksy) before the gubernatorial campaign.

So far, though I assume most of the mainstream Maine media has been made aware of the website, very little of the substance of the site’s charges has surfaced. People in the media have been more focused on trying to figure out who is behind "The Secret File on Eliot Cutler."

“We are a group of researchers, writers and journalists – unaffiliated with any candidate or political party – who are frustrated that Maine’s mainstream media is either unwilling or incapable of investigating the background and business connections of Eliot Cutler,” the website states.

When I e-mailed the website asking for an interview, I received a reply from a Michael Blessing, though he signed himself “Publius.” Mr. Blessing agreed to answer a few e-mailed questions, the main one being why remain anonymous? Doesn’t that undermine any credibility the website might have?

“We assumed that people would look up our party registrations or previous connections and dismiss the site as the work of a particular candidate or party, which it is not, thus losing our credibility. We wanted the material to speak for itself. We’re screwed either way.”

Blessing (or whatever his real name is) also defended anonymity by evoking the history of anonymous political journalism in this country from Tom Paine’s “Common Sense” to Watergate’s Deep Throat.

The difference I see, however, is that most anonymous political writing is not aimed at defeating an individual candidate for office. If public service is the motive, why not a website with background investigations of all five gubernatorial candidates?

“We’d be happy to do similar sites on the other candidates,” Blessing replied. “We are nonpartisan and don’t even know who we’re going to vote for (except we know we’re not voting for Mr. Cutler). Our time and resources are limited, however.”

Blessing expressed the Cutler File creators’ frustration “that the mainstream media were ignoring the facts and letting him get away with creating a misleading campaign persona.” But, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, isn’t creating a favorable picture of one’s self pretty much standard operating procedure in a political campaign? Election campaigns are always more about spin than facts.

Like many in the media, I have my suspicions about who might be behind "The Secret File on Eliot Cutler," but since I can’t prove it I won’t report rumors and guesses. Eliot Cutler’s campaign manager, Ted O’Meara, says he doesn’t know who created the website, but, naturally, he is not amused.

“This is an ugly new chapter in Maine politics,” O’Meara said. “I hope it’s not shades of things to come. If this is the new age of journalism, God help all of us.”

Pretty much my sentiments exactly. I’m unlikely to vote for Cutler, but an anonymous website devoted to attacking his credibility offends my sense of fair play.

It should offend yours, too.