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.
Kurtz himself noted that ABC's original online version of the talking points memo story was headlined "GOP Talking Points on Terri Schiavo." Kurtz failed to note that the Post's original story also stated that the memo had been "distributed only to Republican senators" (emphasis added). In fact, as Hinderaker noted last week, the New York Times's March 22 story on the memo reported: "As tensions festered among Republicans, Democratic aides passed out an unsigned one-page memorandum that they said had been distributed to Senate Republicans." So no Republican distributor or recipient of the memo has been identified by Allen or anyone else.
ALLEN'S CAREFULLY PHRASED backtracking on his story is a little hard to interpret. Is he denying that his story reported the memo was written by a Republican operative and distributed to Republican officeholders voting on the Schiavo legislation? If the memo wasn't "a Republican memo," why was it a story at all, let alone a page-one story?
From the facts we now know: The memo was distributed by Democratic aides to reporters; the fact that it was also distributed to some Republicans would hardly be newsworthy--although, in fact, we are aware of no Republicans who have seen it. But somehow, as noted, the document has been widely described as a "GOP talking points memo."
SO WHAT'S GOING ON? The answer is not hard to come by. Michelle Malkin has identified a number of newspapers that ran the Washington Post's story on the memo, but in a version that (unlike the one that appeared in the Post itself) explicitly attributed the document to the Republican party's leadership. The key line from these stories is, "The one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators by party leaders, called the debate over Schiavo legislation 'a great political issue' that would appeal to the party's base . . . " (emphasis added)
If you run a Google search on "memo distributed to Republican senators by party leaders," this is what you get: dozens of news sources, including Reuters, reporting, falsely, that the "talking points memo" was distributed by Republican party leaders. Each of these news outlets attributes the story to "Mike Allen and Manuel Roig-Franzia, Washington Post." Malkin concluded that in all likelihood, the Post had published this version of the story on its wire service, but then revised the story to eliminate the claim that the memo was distributed by Republican leaders before the story ran in the paper the next morning (March 20).
This hypothesis seemed fairly sturdy. And it was further confirmed when blogger Jack Risko found this version of the Post's article by Mike Allen and Manuel Roig-Franzia, dated 10:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 19. It includes the discredited language: "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 Post's original story on the fake memo, which went out, apparently, on March 19, also included this paragraph:
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.
Someone at the Post swallowed the fake memo hook, line, and sinker. And someone else at the Post apparently realized that the paper lacked facts to back up its accusations.
So it seems clear what happened: The Post originally wrote a story that explicitly claimed that the "talking points memo" was drafted and distributed by the Republican leadership. That version of the story went out over the paper's wire service and was picked up by dozens of news outlets. Before the paper went to press, however, someone apparently realized that they had no basis for attributing the memo to Republicans, and the key language was deleted from the story that actually appeared in print. That story said: "An unsigned one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators, said the debate over Schiavo would appeal to the party's base, or core, supporters." And ever since, reporter Mike Allen and others at the Post have said that they never meant to imply that the memo was created or distributed by Republicans.
This position seems disingenuous. The Washington Post did distribute a version of the story that explicitly attributed the memo to the GOP's leadership. And even in the revised version that appeared in print, the implication that the "talking points memo" was a Republican strategy document is clear.
Yet the Post has done nothing to correct or retract the version of its story that apparently went out on the evening of March 19. And to our knowledge, not a single one of the dozens of newspapers and other news outlets that printed the false claim that the memo was circulated by the Republican leadership has retracted or corrected the claim either.
STILL, there may be a story here: The memo in question is a pathetic piece of work. It is on a blank piece of paper with no letterhead, signature, or identification. It gets the Senate bill number wrong, misspells Terri Schiavo's name, and is full of typographical errors. The only people reported to have distributed it (by the New York Times) were Democratic staffers. And--most fundamentally--it is odd to think that the Republican leadership would produce a "talking points" memo discussing what great politics the Schiavo case was for Republicans. Those aren't talking points; not for Republicans, anyway.
Scott Johnson is a contributor to the blog Power Line and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.