Accuracy in Media

The Washington Post believes it has been vindicated by the revelation that a Republican congressional staffer really did write the controversial Republican memo on the political ramifications of the Terri Schiavo case. But this fact is almost beside the point. The memo was never an official Republican document and there’s no evidence that any Republican Senator ever read it. The latest revelation adds to the perception that liberal Democrats play the media like a violin. 

The news is that, after weeks of suspense about the authorship and origin of the memo, Brian Darling of the office of Republican Senator Mel Martinez has admitted writing it and has resigned. But the real story is that liberal Democratic Senator Tom Harkin has been confirmed as the source of the document for the media. How did Harkin get the memo? It was a mistake. Martinez was not aware that he had turned the document over to Harkin, nor was he aware of what was in the document. Harkin finally informed Martinez on April 6 that he had in fact received the memo from Martinez himself. That’s when Martinez launched his own inquiry and discovered that Darling had written it.   

This strange story gets even stranger as you learn more about it. What’s clear, now more than ever, is that the Post and other media exploited this document for anti-Republican purposes and exaggerated its importance. It will be interesting to see how Post top brass defend their coverage of this memo at the company’s May 12 annual meeting.  

It turns out, according to the Post account of Brian Darling’s role, that Martinez never read the memo and “distributed” it inadvertently to Harkin, a perceived ally in the Schiavo case. The evidence is now clear that it was Harkin and/or his aides who distributed the memo on a massive scale to other Democrats and the press, including Mike Allen of the Post, in order to make Republicans look bad.

Allen took the bait, falsely reporting that “Republican officials” were the authors, that the memo had been “distributed to Republican senators” and by Republican “party leaders.” Allen also reported that the memo had been distributed “only to Republican Senators.” None of this was or is true. The Post still has some explaining?and apologizing?to do.

The continuing controversy serves as a window into the political reporting of the Post and its use of anonymous sources. The reference to the memo being distributed “only to Republican Senators” was an obvious ruse designed to conceal the Democratic source.

Even before this new disclosure, one of Allen’s stories had been partially corrected by the Washington Post wire service, which declared that, “The version of the article published later by the paper did not specify authorship and noted that the memo was unsigned. The authorship remains unknown.” The original story claimed that the memo was “distributed to Republican senators by party leaders.” This is false. There’s no evidence that Martinez, a Senator for only three months, got the document from party leaders or that he distributed it to them or other Republican Senators. The version of the memo that was eventually released by the Martinez office in the form of a press release did not include any of the political references. It now seems clear that the Brian Darling memo seized upon by the media was an early draft that was not officially authorized or sanctioned.

Now I understand why Allen refused to respond to my early series of questions about his coverage of the case. These questions included:

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

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

  • How do you know it was distributed “only” to Republican Senators?

Allen didn’t answer these questions because the answers would have demonstrated how flimsy and partisan his story really was. He had to know that the document had been obtained by Senator Harkin or another Democratic Party source and that this fact alone would cast doubt on its importance or validity. So Harkin’s role was carefully concealed. Allen falsely inflated the importance of the memo by claiming that it had been distributed by or to Republican Senators. Back-pedaling from his initial accusations, Allen resorted to telling Howard Kurtz, media reporter for the Post, that the memo was just a “sheet of paper.” That’s exactly what it was, but that’s not the way the Post initially reported it.   

In his story about Darling’s role, Allen now tries to shift the burden to those who had questioned the document. He reports that “The mystery of the memo’s origin had roiled the Capitol. Republicans accused Democrats of concocting the document as a dirty trick; Democrats accused Republicans of trying to duck responsibility for exploiting the dying days of an incapacitated woman. Conservative Web logs have challenged the authenticity of the unsigned memo that includes eight talking points in support of the bill and calls the controversy ‘a great political issue.'” Yes, the authenticity of the memo had been challenged because it had no author or letterhead, and the Washington Times couldn’t find one Republican Senator who had read it.

The stories about the memo carried by ABC News, the Washington Post, CBS News and other media are still questionable, even after the author has been identified as a Republican. And the use of this memo in a spate of anti-Republican stories on the Schiavo case still looks like a Democratic Party dirty trick. Indeed, the evidence on this score is stronger than ever. The only difference between two weeks ago and now is that the hand of the Democratic Party has been completely exposed.

Look at what the Post is itself reporting. According to Allen’s story, Martinez said that “he had not read the one-page memo. He said he inadvertently passed it to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who had worked with him on the issue. After that, officials gave the memo to reporters for ABC News and the Washington Post.”

Who were those officials? Obviously aides to Harkin and other Democrats. The media were given a memo with no identified author and no Senate letterhead. Recognizing this could make Republicans look bad, reporters ran with the story, refusing of course to disclose where they obtained the document.   

So let’s understand what happened here. Martinez has the controversial memo written by his own staffer, and he turns it over to Harkin because he thinks they supposedly see eye-to-eye about Schiavo’s right to life. This fact alone would seem to confirm that Martinez had never read the memo. If he had read it, why on earth would he turn something so potentially controversial over to Harkin? After all, the memo said the issue was possibly useful against Democratic Senators. But Harkin, rather than return the document to Martinez because he had been given it improperly and accidentally, leaks it to the media and his fellow Democratic Senators. Harkin demonstrated in this conduct that he was more concerned in making political points against the Republicans than in helping Schiavo stay alive.

Harkin could have returned the document to Martinez, noting that it was a piece of crude work product and that he was sure it didn’t reflect the views of Martinez or other Republican Senators. But that’s not what Harkin did. Instead, he passed the memo on to other Democrats and the press, knowing that it would be transformed into another “scandal” for the GOP.

The New York Times had confirmed early on that the memo had been “distributed to news organizations by Democratic aides.”

Now we understand why the Mike Allen story carried by the Post Wire Service had said that the memo was “intended to be seen” only by Republican Senators. This was another way of saying that it had been obtained by Democrats, who leaked it to the media. Now we know how Senator Harkin and his aides got it. Martinez had ineptly turned it over to them.

The Post’s Mike Allen now reports, “Harkin said in an interview that Martinez handed him the memo on the Senate floor, in hopes of gaining his support for the bill giving federal courts jurisdiction in the Florida right-to-die case.” Harkin said Martinez had told him that “these were talking points?something that we’re working on here.” This explains why ABC News called it the “GOP Talking Points” memo and suggested that it was an official Republican position. Linda Douglass of ABC News, like the others, obviously got the story from Harkin or his aides. They simply regurgitated what the liberals gave them.

Associated Press reports that “Martinez said that he pulled the document from his coat pocket and recently handed it to Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, thinking it was background information on a bill ordering a review of the Schiavo case.”

It seems that Martinez, rather than his aide Brian Darling, has more to answer for in this case. He should read his documents before he turns them over to an ultra-liberal like Harkin. But in the congressional world the staff aide takes the rap for the mistakes of his boss. Darling’s “crime,” in the final analysis, was that he wrote a memo that included a few political observations about a case before Congress.

It was only through the work of those questioning the memo that the truth has now belatedly been disclosed. Because of the stonewalling by the media and the precedent of Dan Rather’s Memogate scandal, there was every reason to suspect the memo was a fake. Now it turns out that the memo was real but of no consequence. It was one of thousands of memos that never get officially released or distributed. The fact remains that the media coverage was atrocious and biased because it was based on a partisan source with an axe to grind.

Ironically, it turns out that the Democrats and their media allies exploited a Republican memo for partisan political purposes. But it was their story line that the Republicans were guilty of such behavior. That, of course, is the line that media went with.   

In the Dan Rather Memogate case, his defense was that the memo was fake but the story was real. That was ridiculous. In this version of Memogate, however, it looks like the memo was real but the stories were mostly fake or inaccurate. Both cases demonstrate the liberal partisan bias of the media. We must not lose sight of this critical fact.

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