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Fake but Accurate Again?

The "GOP talking points memo" on Terri Schiavo has all the signs of a political dirty trick. Where is the mainstream media?

11:00 PM, Mar 27, 2005 • By JOHN HINDERAKER
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MUCH TIME MAY PASS before we fully understand the political ramifications of the Terri Schiavo case. For now, though, it seems that Republicans are taking a fearful beating. Opinion polls consistently show that a large majority of Americans disapproved of the effort--bipartisan, to be sure, but led by Republicans--to keep Mrs. Schiavo alive. To add insult to injury, most poll respondents hold the seemingly-inconsistent belief that the Republicans are not sincere, but are trying to capitalize on the Schiavo tragedy for political advantage.

One reason for this perception may be the "GOP talking points memo" that was distributed on March 17, when the Senate took up the bill that conferred federal jurisdiction over a last effort to save Mrs. Schiavo. The memo was first reported by ABC's Linda Douglass on Friday, March 18. The next day, on ABC's Good Morning America, Kate Snow confronted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay with "some talking points that Senate Republicans were circulating"; DeLay denied any knowledge of the memo.

On March 20, the Washington Post joined in, reporting:

An unsigned one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators, said the debate over Schiavo would appeal to the party's base, or core, supporters. The memo singled out Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is up for reelection next year and is potentially vulnerable in a state President Bush won last year.

"This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue," said the memo, which was reported by ABC News and later given to The Washington Post. "This is a great political issue, because Senator Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a cosponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats."

The full text of the memo was finally reported on March 21, when ABC News posted online "an exact, full copy of the document." ABC headlined the story, "GOP Talking Points on Terri Schiavo." As quoted by ABC, the memo was odd, to say the least. The Senate bill was identified, incorrectly, as "S. 529." (The bill was S. 539.) The memo also included five typographical errors, including misspelling Terri Schiavo's first name as "Teri." ABC obligingly identified four of these errors with a "sic." The memo, as quoted by ABC, contained no hint as to who authored it. Its content, however, immediately raised questions.

MOST OF THE DOCUMENT, in particular paragraphs five through eight, does indeed consist of talking points. These paragraphs are arguments in favor of the Senate bill which would have been appropriate for use on the Senate floor or when talking to reporters. But these were not, of course, the paragraphs the news media were interested in. On top of these actual talking points were grafted the paragraphs that said "the pro-life base will be excited," "This is a great political issue," etc.

But, as was quickly pointed out by bloggers, these political observations are not "talking points" at all. These are comments on political strategy which would be out of place in argument on the Senate floor, or in a media interview. The plot grew thicker when it was pointed out that the bulk of the memo--paragraphs five through eight--was lifted word-for-word from the website of the Traditional Values Coalition. So it is evident that whoever wrote the memo spent no time formulating arguments in favor of the Republican leadership's position; the memo's legitimate talking points were merely cut and pasted off the internet. The anonymous author's contribution was simply to add the explosive (and, in context, inappropriate) political observations.

Questions about the genuineness of the memo intensified when, later the same day, the far-left website Raw Story published, for the first time, a JPEG version of the scanned memo, which it said "[a] source on Capitol Hill has leaked." The print version of the memo, as posted on Raw Story, was identical to ABC's "exact, full copy of the document," except that the four typos that ABC had identified with a "sic" were all corrected. Interestingly, however, the fifth typo--"applicably" instead of "applicable" in the sixth paragraph--which ABC did not so identify, was not corrected in Raw Story's "leaked" version of the document.