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It Wasn't Fake

We now know the truth about the Schiavo memo.

1:35 PM, Apr 8, 2005 • By JOHN HINDERAKER
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FOR THE PAST TWO AND A HALF WEEKS, Washington has been roiled by controversy over an alleged "GOP talking points memo" that, according to ABC News and the Washington Post, was circulated among Republican Senators on the evening of March 17, when the Senate took up debate on the Terri Schiavo federal jurisdiction bill. The memo, of which Republicans disclaimed any knowledge, set forth familiar arguments in favor of preserving Schiavo's life, but in addition said:

This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue.

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 document's existence was first reported by ABC News, which headlined it as a "GOP talking points memo." On the morning of March 19, ABC's Kate Snow ambushed Tom DeLay with the memo and used it to question the motives of Republicans generally:

KATE SNOW: ABC News has obtained some talking points that Senate Republicans were circulating, outlining why Republicans should be involved in this case.

KATE SNOW: Here's a couple of the points. The pro-life base will be excited, and it's a tough issue for Democrats, which, which raises the question, is this just pure politics, Mr. DeLay?

TOM DELAY: Kate, I don't know where those talking points come from, and I think they're disgusting.

KATE SNOW: Senate Republicans.

The other news source that initially publicized the memo was the Washington Post. In its initial report on the evening of March 19, the Post, in a story carrying the byline of Mike Allen and Manuel Roig-Franzia, wrote:

Republican officials declared, in a memo that was supposed to be seen only by senators, that they believe the Schiavo case "is a great political issue" that could pay dividends with Christian conservatives, whose support is essential in midterm elections such as those coming up in 2006.

A one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators by party leaders, 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.

The Post's story was picked up by the Reuters news service and by dozens of newspapers, and was, in large part, the basis for a widespread popular belief that the leadership of the Republican party had played politics with the Schiavo case. The memo was widely cited by media outlets and liberal commentators as evidence that congressional Republicans were insincere in their support for Schiavo, and were using the case to pursue political advantage. The Post itself, however, apparently thought better of its original story by the time it went to press on March 20. Its claim that the memo was authored by "Republican officials" and was distributed by "party leaders" was deleted from the version of the story that ran in the Post. Instead, the published version said, more antiseptically:

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.

With Scott Johnson and other bloggers, I soon began raising questions about the source of the memo. In response to those questions, both ABC News and Washington Post reporter Mike Allen backtracked, claiming that they had never suggested that the Republicans had authored or distributed the memo, but only that some Republican senators had received it. Allen told the Post's Howard Kurtz:

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. We stuck to what we knew to be true and did not call them talking points or a Republican memo.

In view of the March 19 version of the Post's story, this claim was plainly untrue, although it is possible that the Post sent out on its newswire a version of the article that Allen had not seen, despite the fact that it carried his byline.

Meanwhile, a copy of the memo was posted online. It was thereby revealed as an amateurish production; the memo was unsigned, on plain paper rather than letterhead; it got the Senate bill number wrong, misspelled Terri Schiavo's name, and contained a number of other typographical errors. Power Line and several other blogs questioned whether the memo was authentic at all. There were, as we wrote, several possible sources for the document: