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In his November 17 nationally syndicated column, Robert D. Novak wrote that "[a]gents of Sen. Hillary [Rodham] Clinton [D-NY] are spreading the word in Democratic circles that she has scandalous information about her principal opponent for the party's presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama [D-IL], but has decided not to use it." Offering no clear sourcing, Novak continued: "The nature of the alleged scandal was not disclosed." On the November 19 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, Novak claimed that his source was "a well-known Democrat" who "was told by an agent of the Clinton campaign ... about the alleged scandal, but acknowledged that he personally has no idea whether the alleged "scandalous information" even exists, saying: "[W]hether there is any such scandalous information, I don't know." Later that day, on the November 19 edition of Fox News' America's Pulse, host E.D. Hill said that Novak "said that team Hillary had some, quote, 'scandalous information' on her rival, Barack Obama, but wasn't releasing it -- yet." Hill went on to introduce a report by Fox News congressional correspondent Major Garrett by saying that Obama's "reaction" to Novak's column "might leave some with the impression that he might, perhaps, could have something to hide," failing to note that Novak himself admitted that he has no personal knowledge of any information Obama would want to "hide."
Novak cited no sources in his original column. On Fox & Friends, he acknowledged that his purported "source" was not involved in the Clinton campaign, referring to that "source" as "a well-known Democrat, but neutral so far" who was "told by an agent of the Clinton campaign" about the "scandalous information." He said he "then checked with another source who is neutral and said he had heard the same thing from Clinton -- Clinton people."
Novak's November 17 column bears similarities to the January 17 InsightMag.com article alleging that Clinton's campaign conducted a "background check" into "Mr. Obama's Muslim past," which revealed that Obama "spent at least four years in a so-called Madrassa, or Muslim seminary, in Indonesia." The InsightMag.com article -- which, like Novak's column, simultaneously attacked the Clinton and Obama campaigns -- cited only anonymous "[s]ources close to the background check," and its allegation that Obama was educated in a "madrassa" was quickly and thoroughly debunked.
On November 19, Sam Stein, political reporter for The Huffington Post, wrote of Novak's Fox & Friends appearance:
So Novak was not privy to the dirt itself, nor did he talk to Clinton's people. Rather, he heard it from someone who had heard it from someone else. Another secondary source, Novak went on to say, claimed to have heard the same thing. Fact-checking = completed.
For the record, in the original column, Novak suggested he had more personal knowledge of that rumor-mongering. "Agents of Sen. Hillary Clinton," the piece began, "are spreading the word in Democratic circles that she has scandalous information about her principal opponent for the party's presidential nomination..." There was no mention of a source.
Stein also noted that Novak's November 17 column "has been ridiculed" by other media figures: reporter-blogger Steve Benen called it "shamelessly unethical," while Time columnist Joe Klein called the column "garbage" and suggested Novak "has simply abandoned all pretense of being a journalist."
From the November 19 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:
STEVE DOOCY (co-host): Thanks for joining us on this Monday morning. Is Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign hiding damaging dirt about Barack Obama? A recent column got quite a reaction, even from Obama himself.
BRIAN KILMEADE (co-host): We now have an exclusive interview with the man who wrote that article, syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor Robert Novak. Bob, welcome back. Again, controversy surrounding -- surrounding one of your columns -- which is good -- using one of your sources. What did you write, and what caused such a reaction?
NOVAK: I wrote that the Clinton campaign had injected into the Democratic political bloodstream a report that they had derogatory, scandalous information about Barack Obama, but were not going to put it out because it would hurt the Democratic Party and probably hurt Senator Clinton if that information was out. But they thought my source, who is a well-known Democrat, but neutral so far, but they thought he should know about this information. I then checked with another source who is neutral and said he had heard the same thing from Clinton -- Clinton people.
This is -- this is very similar to the kind of tricks that Richard Nixon used to pull, where he would say, "I know some very bad information about the Communist-supporting [1972 Democratic presidential candidate] George McGovern, but I can't put that out because it wouldn't be right, but I'm just too good of a guy." Now, what -- whether there is any such scandalous information, I don't know. But what I know is I'm confident in my sources, who I trust, were told this by Clinton people that there was such information out.
DOOCY: OK, and going to the source, you refer to that person as an agent of Hillary Clinton, and you said not aligned so far. Does that mean -- it's obviously not somebody from the campaign, but just somebody who's a big Democrat in Democrat [sic] circles.
NOVAK: Now, let's get it straight that the pers -- my source is a big Democrat, not -- who is neutral right now, but was told by an agent of the Clinton campaign --
NOVAK: -- who was involved in the campaign about the alleged scandal.
DOOCY: So somebody, Bob -- somebody from the campaign has spoken to Democrats, saying she's got this stuff on Barack Obama, but she's not going to spread it around because --
NOVAK: Exactly. That's what the story is. Yes.
From the November 19 edition of Fox News' America's Pulse:
HILL: There is trouble on the campaign trail after a report surfaced in Robert Novak's column that said that team Hillary had some, quote, "scandalous information" on her rival, Barack Obama, but wasn't releasing it -- yet. Obama is calling on Clinton to come clean about it, but her team is denying the charge, saying Obama is falling victim to a right-wing trick.
Major Garrett is live in Knoxville, Iowa. Major, Obama's impression might leave some -- reaction, that is, might leave some with the impression that he might, perhaps, could have something to hide. I mean, if you're coming out that strongly instead of just sort of blowing it off and saying, "What is she talking about?" is that a risk?
GARRETT: It's a risk that the Obama campaign very much considered, E.D., and I want to tell you, I've got a horrible satellite connection, so if I can't hear your next question, please forgive me, and you'll just have to move on. But on that question, the Obama campaign said -- told me it had two choices. It could either respond aggressively to this charge, or let it lie. Or basically dare the Clinton campaign to release whatever it is that they had -- that's three choices. They decided to be aggressive because they thought, here in Iowa, the better posture for them would be to challenge Clinton directly, put this to rest, and even if that left the impression they might have something to hide, that was worth the risk, because they wanted to assert themselves as an aggressive Democratic campaign willing to take on any and all challengers -- Hillary Clinton, the future Republican nominee if Barack Obama gets the nomination for the Democratic Party. All those things they wanted to lay down.