Thingish Things

Anatomy of a Smear Job

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Jan• 25•12

Almost didn’t write this because I have a professional interest in the topic, but I like to offer readers of this blog an occasional peek behind the scenes into American politics as its practiced.

This week provided an irresistible example of an orchestrated — and ultimately bungled — political smear job. This one came from the Left, specifically the campaign team of New York’s protean junior senator Kirsten Gillibrand and its ideological allies. Ms. Gillibrand is worried about her re-election prospects, and the latest Marist poll reflects why she should be. 

The Gillibrand team last week “shopped” a story to the New York Times about Marc Cenedella, 41, the founder and CEO of the job- and career-advice company Mr. Cenedella, a client of mine, is considering challenging Ms. Gillibrand for her seat, but he remains an undeclared private citizen.

“Shopping” a story means having a story line fully parsed, fact-checked, and ready to go, complete with sources, for a news outlet to pursue. In politics these stories are often about ones’ opponent, which is fine. A democracy requires a rigorous examination of its leaders. If the news outlet looks at the story and considers it feeble, it will usually — usually — turn it down. It then gets “shopped” to another outlet or re-tooled.

Mr. Cendella is a prolific writer and entrepreneur. At the same time he was building his jobs business, he started a blog (2003) with a college friend. It was called Stone.  Stone — as in none left unturned — was styled in the genre of other budding and irreverent online publications of the day like Gawker, The Onion, Smoking Gun, early Huff Post, and others. Stone had six or seven contributors and a solid following. Mr. Cenedella and his college “co-consiprator” were at one point offered a book deal for the quality of their writing.

Stone would often “riff” off news items of the day — as all blogs do — typically weird or offbeat Internet-based stories, i.e., the stuff people love to read. The more outrageous the material, the more likely Stone writers would be to pounce on it, typically with a link to the site and a simple preface like, “check this out” or “enjoy.” Here’s an example link to a Stone page as it actually appeared when published. Throughout the five-year history of Stone, it made thousands of these posts. Readers loved the format and edgy material selection.

Mr. Cenedella’s co-publisher became tragically ill in 2005, and he passed away at a young age in 2007. Soon after, Marc and the other Stone contributors ceased publishing.

Fast forward five years. The Gillibrand team is scouring the Internet for any damaging references to Mr. Cenedella.
Its crack team of Internet sleuths discover a maintenance site for Mr. Cenedella’s current personal blog,, for which its technicians used old Stone material as a place-holder to test a new platform. (The Gillibrand safe-crackers could more easily have found the old Stone posts at, where they always have been available, as are all the archives)

Ms. Gillbrand’s campaign hunted for the most salacious stories Stone contributors ever linked to — linked to! — and shopped them to The Times as Mr. Cenedella’s opinions. Under that argument, Ariana Huffington or any other publisher is presumed to agree or endorse whatever her publication links to. It is a preposterous suggestion. It is a dumb assertion. 

How do we know it was the Gillibrand team that did this?  The Times gave them up. A newspaper virtually never does that. It almost never sources negative material to a rival campaign, but in this case it did, presumambly because it was not entirely comfortable with the story. The New York Observer noticed the hedge, investigated it, and  wrote this excellent “debunk” piece last night on what was behind Kirsten Gillibrand’s hit-piece here.

The Times published its story Monday, and within hours the Gillibrand smear-job machine was in full action.  Fundraising and advocacy emails began pouring out of the political Left from EMILY’s List, NOW New York State, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, and Ms. Gillibrand herself. Examples of those email blasts are here, here, and here. Mr. Cendella was portrayed as a monster because he was the publisher of an online site that linked to other people’s weird opinions. (I’m afraid to peer in the mirror. I’ve now linked to a link to a link of that material, too.)

The rest of the news world took a peek at this story and passed on it. They saw it for what it was. But the Times ran it, and its story will serve as a link for copious left-wing fundraising mailers, and the citation — in size four font — at the bottom of nasty television ads.

The smear job was done, but Kirsten Gillibrand and her “oppo team” made a huge mistake. They left their fingerprints behind, allowing the general public to see nasty, modern American politics in action.

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  1. Chaim Haas says:

    As a former PR staffer for a local Mayor, I’d have to suggest that this is no great revelation for the average American voter, especially after seeing Swift Boat in action during the 2004 campaign and the current prevalence of Super PAC ‘badvertising’ during this year’s Republican primary cycle.

    It is no wonder to me that many young ideologues who could actually help this country decide not to run for office, especially when they consider that a) the cost of actually mounting a campaign (even a local one) requires incredibly deep pockets and b) the thought of every personal detail being made public and being deeply scrutinized makes even the idea of running for office an unpleasant thought.

    Welcome to the wonderful world of American politics Mr. Cenedella! You probably should have done some of your own background checking (after all, your company is in the job search market) before even considering a run for office.

  2. Thanks, Chaim. Think one of the nation’s leading Internet experts doesn’t realize that online material stays online. “Cendella.” Feast away.

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