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The Scaife Strategy: Smother Teresa

Colin McNickle, the political wife-beater for billionnaire Richard Mellon-Scaife's right-wing attack machine, has set his sights on Teresa Heinz-Kerry – good thing she's willing to stand up to it.
 
 
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Colin McNickle did not enter the Democratic Convention as an ordinary reporter. As the editorial page editor for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review , a newspaper owned by eccentric rightist billionaire Richard Mellon-Scaife, McNickle came to Boston as an agent provocateur. "What happens when a conservative commentator infiltrates the Democratic National Convention?" the Tribune-Review asked in pre-convention promotion of McNickle's coverage. McNickle answered that question on Sunday, July 25 by provoking a spat with Teresa Heinz-Kerry.

The dustup occurred after Heinz-Kerry gave a speech to the Pennsylvania delegation denouncing "some of the creeping, un-Pennsylvanian and sometimes un-American traits that are coming into some of our politics." McNickle approached her and asked what she meant by "un-American activities," in effect accusing her of McCarthyism. Heinz-Kerry denied using the phrase "un-American activities" and stormed off. Yet when Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell pointed out to her that McNickle was a reporter from the Tribune-Review, Heinz-Kerry returned to him with a rebuke. "You're from the Tribune Review ?" she asked McNickle with a face tightened with rage. "That's understandable. You said something I didn't say. Now shove it."

Most of the mainstream press characterized the incident as The New York Times ' Jim Rutenberg did: another example of "Teresa being Teresa." For them, the dustup was a resounding confirmation that their hastily scrawled sketch of an incurable free spirit who was filling John Kerry's campaign coffers while draining his political fortunes was an accurate one. However, there is much more to it than that. McNickle's provocation of Heinz-Kerry represents the latest manifestation of a poisonous dirty tricks campaign Scaife has financed to undermine Heinz-Kerry, a fellow Western Pennsylvania philanthropist whom he considers his rival. And now that Heinz-Kerry has been thrust into the national spotlight by her husband's presidential candidacy, Scaife's smears are likely to intensify.

"The dust-up between Teresa Heinz-Kerry and Colin McNickle has a long history behind it that goes back a good 15 years before McNickle even worked there," said Dennis Roddy, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , who has covered Pennsylvania politics for over 30 years. "Scaife has had it in for [Heinz Kerry] because she's not sufficiently conservative, she's a moderate voice. She has always felt badly treated by the Tribune-Review and it doesn't surprise me that her grievances finally came out."

The Tribune-Review routinely sniped at Teresa Heinz during her marriage to Pennsylvania's Republican former Senator John Heinz. When the senator died in 1991, and the Massachusetts Junior Senator John Kerry stole Teresa's heart, the paper's attacks grew increasingly slanderous. On December 28, 1997, the paper featured an anonymously penned cover story falsely insinuating that a woman named Sheila Lawrence had had affairs with both Bill Clinton and Kerry. "Far from giving all to Bill, there was still something left over for Sen. John Kerry," who had "a very private tete-a-tete" with "sexy Sheila," the columnist alleged. In another column, the Tribune-Review mocked John Kerry as "Mr. Teresa Heinz."

Perhaps the most spurious of the Tribune-Review's attacks came in December, 2003, when it ran a piece accusing Heinz-Kerry of secretly "funneling cash" from her Heinz Endowment to the Tides Foundation, a group that "supports extreme left wing groups... anti-war protests... unlimited abortion rights, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy, as well as and [sic] environmental extremism." The piece was based on research conducted by the right-wing think tank Capital Research Center, yet failed to mention that Scaife granted the center $240,000 in 2002 or that he was connected to it in any way. The article also omitted the fact that the Heinz Foundation's grants were all strictly earmarked for mainstream Western Pennsylvania environmental charities, an inexcusable omission that could have been avoided if the paper had bothered to call either the Heinz Foundation or the Tides Foundation to confirm its wild claims.

Despite the article's shoddy research, its accusations became a favorite tune on the right's Mighty Wurlitzer. FrontPageMagazine plugged it in a piece called, "Teresa Heinz-Kerry: Bag Lady of the Radical Left;" The New York Post followed with the headline, "Teresa Heinz's Cash Connection;" Rush Limbaugh promoted the claims; the Weekly Standard picked the story up. By the time FOX's Brit Hume reported the accusations, they had been brushed clean of Scaife's fingerprints.

For the past 10 years, the point man in Scaife's anti-Heinz attack campaign has been Colin McNickle, a brash ideologue who has shaped the Tribune-Review's editorial page into a forum for some of the most fanatical currents of right-wing thought. Characteristic examples of McNickle's work include the anonymous obituary he commissioned of Katherine Graham which implied she murdered her husband, Philip Graham, in order to seize control of The Washington Post ; his endorsement of the anti-immigrant border-patrolling Arizona militia leader, Chris Simcox; his routine references to Gov. Ed Rendell as a "socialist;" his penchant for quoting the Austrian aristocrat and conservative intellectual pioneer, Friedrich Von Hayek (perhaps Hayek's ideas were the "un-American traits" Heinz-Kerry referred to in her speech on Sunday). And there is also the fact that the Tribune-Review is the only newspaper in America which publishes columns by White nationalist author Sam Francis, a self-avowed "racialist" whose views are so extreme he was fired by the Washington Times .

McNickle has also displayed a disregard for journalistic ethics throughout his career. His chronic carelessness was most apparent in his July, 2000, column, "Thus (Mis)Speaketh Al," a collection of imbecilic quotes by then-presidential candidate Al Gore. Though the article was laugh-out-loud funny, there was one small problem: the statements McNickle attributed to Gore were actually quotes by former Vice President Dan Quayle. Yet even after his mistake was exposed, McNickle refused to give an inch. "I'll stand by where we got the information from," McNickle told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette .

Despite McNickle's dubious background, since his dustup with Heinz-Kerry he has managed to convince the networks and mainstream press that he is a humble, workaday reporter victimized by "an arrogant, contentious billionaire," in the words of CNN's Bob Novak. In an interview on CNN on July 26, Anderson Cooper allowed McNickle to describe the Tribune-Review as "a very objective, middle-of-the-road paper" without a challenge. Later that evening on MSNBC, The New York Daily News ' ever-credulous gossip columnist Lloyd Grove described McNickle as "just a reporter who's toiled in the past for the newswires UPI and AP." The following day McNickle innocently told Grove, "I'm a little uncomfortable with all the attention I'm getting. I'm here to report the news, not make it." If Grove had only done a quick search for McNickle's clips, he may have discovered what an absurd statement that was.

Scaife's dirty tricks campaign against Teresa Heinz-Kerry is not without precedent. Indeed, it bears ominous echoes to the Arkansas Project, the $2.4 million dollar dirty tricks campaign Scaife financed during the 1990's to paint Bill and Hillary Clinton as drug dealers, thieves and murderers which included paying "sources" for information that turned out to be false. Then as now, the spurious accusations germinated in Scaife's smear factory are eagerly broadcast by the right-wing punditocracy and naively entertained by a gossip-starved mainstream press terrified of appearing to affect any liberal bias.

And just as Hillary was initially derided by the press for claiming she was the victim of "a vast right-wing conspiracy," Heinz-Kerry is ridiculed for standing up to one of Scaife's hatchet men. Nevertheless, Teresa Heinz Kerry's dustup with Colin McNickle is an encouraging sign. Because like Hillary, Teresa Heinz Kerry has a keen awareness of who her enemies are and by telling them to "shove it," she has demonstrated the courage to stand up to them.

Max Blumenthal is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. Read his blog at maxblumenthal.blogspot.com.