Accuracy in Media

On March 21, Robert G. Kaiser, Washington Post Associate Managing Editor, was conducting an online chat when someone from New York asked about the explosive “GOP talking points memo” on the Terri Schiavo case. Kaiser said that the memo, which reportedly referred to the Schiavo case as “a great political issue” for Republicans, was the subject of a Sunday Washington Post article by Mike Allen. Kaiser was asked: Why haven’t we seen the memo? He replied, “Good question?Mike is not here now so I can’t confirm my hunch that his sources read him the memo but didn’t give him a copy. That happens quite often these days.”

Read him the memo but didn’t give him a copy? And that “happens quite often these days?”  It’s no wonder the media get into trouble when they rely on documents in their stories. Is it possible that this anonymous memo is a fraud?

This supposedly important memo was not seen by Senator Bill Frist, the Senate Majority Leader, who said, in referring to media accounts, that “I condemn the content of the memo and reaffirm that the interest in this case by myself, and the many members of the Senate on both sides of the aisle, is to assure that Mrs. Schiavo has another chance at life.”

In the Sunday March 20 article, Mike Allen and Manuel Roig-Franzia referred to the document as an “unsigned one-page memo” that had been “distributed to Republican senators.” In a March 21 article, Charles Babington and Mike Allen of the Post had referred to it simply as “unsigned.”

The Seattle Times ran a story, credited to the Washington Post, under the headline, “GOP memo says issue offers political rewards.” The three-paragraph story said that the GOP memo was “intended to be seen only by senators.” The story went on to say that the memo was “reported by ABC News and later given to The Washington Post.”

ABC News claimed that the memo listing talking points on the Terri Schiavo case “was circulated among Republican senators on the floor of the Senate.” It ran “an exact, full copy of the document obtained exclusively by ABC News and first reported Friday, March 18, 2005, by Linda Douglass on ‘World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.’” But it wasn’t a photocopy of the actual document. It looked like something that anybody could have typed up. Perhaps somebody did.

The political aspects of the memo were mainly two sentences: “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.”

Did anyone notice the memo’s reference to this being “an important moral issue?” The final sentence in the memo stated that, “This legislation ensures that individuals like Terri Schiavo are guaranteed the same legal protections as convicted murderers like Ted Bundy.”

So this political memo is based on moral considerations. This is the part of the memo, whatever its origin, that the media didn’t want to quote or examine. Can there be any doubt that the public perception of the case would change if people were informed by our press that Congress was trying to give the same rights to Terri Schiavo that are guaranteed to those on death row? 

“I was very uncomfortable with the Congress intervening,” said CBS Evening News anchorman Bob Schieffer. But the media don’t raise any alarms when the federal courts protect the rights of convicted killers, who enjoy seemingly endless appeals before they are put to death. 

Reporters didn’t want to talk about a double-standard that protects criminals at the expense of an innocent disabled woman. Instead, the political significance of the unsigned memo started growing in importance, even in the continuing absence of any evidence about its origin and authenticity. Janet Hook of the Los Angeles Times pronounced it “a GOP staff memo,” while Mike Madden of the Tennessean claimed that reports had surfaced that “GOP leadership aides had circulated” it. These were serious charges. Who were these staffers?  Who were these leadership aides?

Marie Cocco of New York Newsday referred to the mysterious “memo writer,” whoever that may be. Does anybody know? Do the media care? Or are they just anxious to use the memo for their own political purposes to bash the Republicans?

On the Fox News website, Kelley Beaucar Vlahos wrote that the memo was “purportedly” circulated by Republicans. That was more accurate. She went on to say, “The authenticity of the memo, which appeared publicly on a Web log and had Terri Schiavo’s first name misspelled, was quickly denied by Republicans.” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said, “I have not seen these talking points. My question is, have [the memos] been assigned and who put them out? If anyone on my staff put them out they would be immediately dismissed. This is not a political issue.”

We have sent an email to Mike Allen of the Washington Post asking the following:

* Did you have an actual copy of the memo before you wrote your March 20 story?

* Robert G. Kaiser of the Post said his hunch was that the memo was read to you before you saw it. Is that true?

* You wrote that the document was later given to the Post. When? 

* If the memo is unsigned, as you reported, how do you know it is authentic?

* Senator Frist said he had never seen it. So how do you know it was “distributed to Republican Senators?”

* You wrote that the memo was distributed “only” to Republican Senators? How do you know that?

* ABC News claimed to have an “exact, full copy of the document” and ran the language on its website. But there is no indication that there was an official marking on the document to prove that it came from or went to a Republican Senate office.  So how do you know it was distributed “only” to Republican Senators?

* Which Republican Senator authorized or assigned the writing of the memo?

* The memo declares that Senate legislation on the Schiavo case “ensures that individuals like Terri Schiavo are guaranteed the same legal protections as convicted murderers like Ted Bundy.” Why didn’t you report this part of the memo? 

* Can you provide an actual copy of the document so independent experts can examine it?

The memo may have been written by some Republican somewhere. But there’s no independent evidence at this point that it was authorized by a Republican Senator or written by a top Republican staffer. If the media are confident that the memo is real, let them produce an actual copy and describe in detail how they verified it. There’s no reason we should accept their claims about this memo at face value. Didn’t we learn anything from Memogate?

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