Accuracy in Media

When Dan Rather used fake memos to smear President Bush, bloggers blew the whistle and the rest of the media recognized a journalistic scandal. But coverage of the dubious “GOP Talking Points” memo on the Schiavo case has been far different. Perhaps realizing that another phony document scandal could totally sink the credibility of the so-called mainstream media, there is great reluctance to admit that journalists from ABC News, the Washington Post, CBS News and other news organizations were taken in again, and that the Democrats played a dirty trick on the Republicans in a matter of life and death.

The significance of the memo cannot be underestimated. It surfaced at a time when Democrats were on the defensive about what to do in the Schiavo case. Would they allow a federal review of the case, as is routinely done for convicted killers facing the death penalty? What better way was there to turn the table on the Republicans than by charging that they really didn’t care about Terri Schiavo but only wanted to fire up their conservative pro-life base? The “GOP Talking Points” memo fit the bill perfectly. It called the case “a great political issue” for the Republicans.

However, a week after it first surfaced in an ABC News report by Linda Douglass, there is no evidence that Republicans or their leaders wrote or distributed it. In fact, the only direct evidence suggests otherwise. The New York Times says that Democratic aides had “passed out” the controversial memo “that they said had been distributed to Senate Republicans.” So Democrats were passing out a memo that “they said” had been distributed by Republicans. How convenient.

In one of the latest chapters in this saga, on March 25, Candy Crowley on CNN claimed the memo was “generated out of a Republican office but rejected by the Republican leadership.” This was a new formulation. It was certainly rejected by the Senate Republican leadership when they found out about it from the press. Of course, they had assumed that the press had gotten its hands on an authentic memo from some Republican office. That was a big assumption to make.

Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard noted that “Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist never saw it. Neither did the Senate Republican whip, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The number three Republican in the Senate, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, didn’t get a copy. Nor did the senator with the closest relationship with President Bush, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. And the senator with the familiar Republican last name, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, didn’t see it or read it. The same is true of Senator Mel Martinez, the rookie Republican from Florida.”

So where is the evidence that this memo was “generated out of a Republican office,” as Crowley asserts?

As AIM noted in a March 24 press release, it appears that three sentences from the memo were lifted from a March 8 press release on the Schiavo case issued by the office of Senator Martinez. But the Martinez release had none of the political points, and Martinez aide Kerry Feehery said she didn’t know where those controversial references came from. “It wasn’t us,” she told AIM. “We have no association with it whatsoever.”
The Martinez March 8 release had been posted on the website of the Traditional Values Coalition, where it could have been easily copied and then altered. James Lafferty, a consultant to the group, believes that a liberal political operative took parts of the Martinez release, added the political references, and then pawned it off to the media as an official GOP Senate document. “I see it as a dirty trick,” Lafferty told AIM.

In his article, Barnes seemed to agree with our analysis, noting that “a few paragraphs” from the memo “were of Republican origin” and “had been lifted, word for word, from a Martinez press release outlining the provisions of his legislative proposal.” He also noted that the offensive political references that the media seized upon were not in the Martinez release.

James Lafferty said that he had access to all the memos on the Schiavo case coming from Republicans on Capitol Hill and that the much-publicized “GOP Talking Points” memo that the media seized upon never came to his attention. “We’ve seen other talking points from other conservative groups as well and none of them had any of this political stuff,” he said.

Lafferty said, “Shame on the media,” for reporting the dubious memo. He added, “Unless they’ve got another source they haven’t told us about, what they’ve reported is unquestioning acceptance of a piece of paper. As CBS learned recently, you cannot trust a piece of paper without verifying what’s on it.”

Meanwhile, even media watchdogs like Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post have decided to help circle the wagons around their colleagues. That may be because Kurtz’s colleague, reporter Mike Allen, had claimed that the memo had been “distributed only to Republican senators.” He forgot to mention that it had been distributed by Democrats.

Questions about the legitimacy of the memo were immediately raised when Post Associate Managing Editor Robert Kaiser was asked during an on-line chat whether the paper would produce the document for others to see. “Good question,” replied Kaiser. He went on to say that he thought Allen had simply been read the memo by “his sources” and that he had a “hunch” they “didn’t give him a copy.” Kaiser added, “That happens quite often these days.”

This was a sad commentary on the state of journalism at the Post. Here was an associate managing editor of the Post saying that he doubted whether one of his top reporters had even seen a copy of a document he was reporting on. The apparent standard at the Post is that it is acceptable to report on documents that reporters haven’t even seen for themselves but have only been told about. (The text of the “GOP Talking Points” memo was subsequently posted by ABC News). At least CBS had the fake documents in its possession. On the other hand, not having the document means that Allen can always say that he wasn’t able to verify or debunk it. He was just trusting and hiding behind his “sources.”

If Allen had seen the document before writing about it (Allen has failed to respond to our emails about this matter), he should have smelled a rat. There was nothing on the document to indicate its origin. It is unsigned and anonymous and has no letterhead. Anybody could have typed it up and claimed it was something it was not. Yet this is the type of document that was seized upon by the Post and other media. The record shows that this is the same paper that went through one journalism scandal when Post reporter Janet Cooke wrote a story about a child heroin addict who didn’t exist.

Based on Allen’s reporting, the Seattle Times ran a story asserting that the memo had been distributed to Republican senators “by party leaders.” This took the alleged scandal one step further. Now, party leaders were implicated in the political exploitation of the Schiavo matter. This story, which was run on the website of the Seattle Times, carried the byline, “By the Washington Post.” Its headline was, ” GOP memo says issue offers political rewards.” The story referred to “a GOP memo intended to be seen only by senators.” Somehow, the Post was now discerning the intentions of those behind the memo.

Reluctant to admit that his colleague Mike Allen may have been taken in by a fraudulent document and that Memogate II was threatening to envelop his paper, Howard Kurtz persisted in his March 25 “Media Notes” column in calling it the “Republican strategy memo.” But where’s the evidence for that claim? There is none at this point. It seems more likely that the source was a Democratic staffer and that Mike Allen, Linda Douglass and Wyatt Andrews of CBS News were used in a dirty tricks campaign against the Republicans. Will the media have the honesty and integrity to admit it?

Their obvious problem in this case is that too many journalists fell for it. If there were just one or two offenders, it would be relatively easy for the rest of the media to expose their transgressions and throw them over the side. An additional problem is that this controversy comes much too soon after the original CBS Memogate scandal. If they admit that this document is fake, it will mean that the major media didn’t learn any lessons at all, and that the abysmal standards at CBS News are common in the journalism business.

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