The Blog

Where Did They Get That Idea?

There's a reason people think that the Terri Schiavo "talking points memo" was written by Republicans.

12:00 AM, Apr 4, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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AFTER 60 Minutes II broadcast its fraudulent story on President Bush's Air National Guard service on September 8, 2004 holy heck broke loose on the Internet. Virtually anyone with eyes to see the evidence that accumulated during the days after the report came to the conclusion that the documents on which the story was based were fraudulent; yet CBS stonewalled for 12 days before admitting that its story was, well, problematic.

Perhaps no event was more instrumental to CBS's undoing than the movement of the inquiry into the fraud from the Internet to the mainstream media in general, and in particular to the Washington Post's Mike Allen (in a September 10 story he reported with Michael Dobbs) and Howard Kurtz (in a series of stories he reported with Allen and Dobbs, including this September 11 piece).

Today Allen stands at the center of another story involving a possibly fraudulent, and certainly misreported, memo: the "GOP talking points memo" dissected last week by John Hinderaker.

Since Hinderaker's column last week, both ABC and the Post have backed off their stories without admitting that their reporting was erroneous. But based on the ABC and Allen/Roig-Franzia Washington Post stories (of March 18 and 20, respectively) the proposition that Republican senators circulated a "GOP talking points memo" supporting the Terri Schiavo legislation for reasons of political self-interest lives on.

FOR INSTANCE, in the New York Times last week, Noam Scheiber began an op-ed by writing, "According to a now infamous memo circulated among Republican senators, the Terri Schiavo case is a 'great political issue' for their party." Scheiber appeared to take at face value that the memo was the handiwork of Republican strategists. Yet no Republican senator has been identified as having received the memo and according to ABC and the Post, their original stories did not go so far as to suggest the provenance of the memo. How had Scheiber come to think otherwise?

The day before Scheiber's column appeared in the Times, the Post's Howard Kurtz took up the subject in an excellent column. According to Kurtz:

Neither [the ABC nor the Washington Post] report said Republicans had written the memo, although they may have left that impression, and they included no comment on the memo from party leaders. ABC's Web site went further than Douglass's on-air report with the headline: "GOP Talking Points on Terri Schiavo."

Kurtz quoted both an ABC representative and his colleague Mike Allen at length:

"ABC News had very reliable, multiple sources who indicated the memo was distributed to Republicans on the floor of the Senate, and that is what we reported," network spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said yesterday. "We have no doubt it was distributed to Republicans. The fact that people are trying to make it about something else is not surprising. It's what we deal with every day from all sides." Referring to Douglass, who is out of the country, he said critics were trying "to go after a good reporter doing good reporting."

The Post's Allen said "the blog interest has been stoked by secondhand accounts" that the paper's story referred to Republican talking points. "We simply reported that the sheet of paper was distributed to Republican senators and told our readers explicitly that the document was unsigned, making clear it was unofficial," he said. "We stuck to what we knew to be true and did not call them talking points or a Republican memo. The document was provided by an official who has a long record of trustworthiness, and this official gave a precise account of the document's provenance, satisfying us that it was authentic and that it had been used in an attempt to influence Republican senators." Allen said that under the journalistic ground rules, he could not say whether the source was a Democrat or a Republican.