Talking Points Story Goes Up In Smoke

For more than a week, the mainstream media have been beating up the Republican Party over an alleged “GOP talking points memo” that, they argue, proves the Republicans took up the Terri Schiavo case in hopes of political gain. We, on the other hand, have questioned repeatedly whether the memo was authored by Republicans at all, and have raised the possibility that it is a Democratic dirty trick. The best short summary of the arguments and evidence is my article in the Daily Standard.
The Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, has now taken up the case in an article titled “Doubts Raised On Schaivo Memo”. Kurtz interviewed me for the article, and quotes me a couple of times. He also interviewed Jeffrey Schneider, a spokesman for ABC News, and his own colleague Mike Allen. The bottom line: both ABC News and the Washington Post are now disavowing any claim that the alleged “talking points memo” was authored by a Republican, let alone that it was some kind of official Republican strategy memo.
ABC’s Schneider told Kurtz, consistent with what he said to blogger Josh Claybourn:

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.

Of course, the fact that the memo was distributed to some Republicans, just as it was distributed to some Democrats and some reporters, was never in doubt. The questions are: 1) where did it come from, and 2) was it distributed by Democrats as a dirty trick? On these points, ABC now professes complete agnosticism.
In fact, however, ABC did not report the memo as claimed by Schneider. Both on the web and on television, it was specifically described as a “GOP talking points memo.” That characterization has been picked up and repeated by countless other news organizations and columnists, and ABC’s belated recantation is highly unlikely to be similarly publicized.
On behalf of the Post, Mike Allen now takes the same approach:

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.

It is true that the Post’s reporting was not as misleading as ABC’s. At the same time, Allen’s original article strongly implied that the memo came from the GOP. His suggestion that calling the memo “unsigned” was enough to signal ignorance about its provenance is, I think, unpersuasive. And the statement that the memo “was distributed to Republican Senators” fails to disclose that it was also distributed to Democrats and reporters, while a number of Republican Senators–I believe a majority–say they never saw it.
At the same time that he denies tarring the Republicans with the memo, Allen seems to want to keep alive the idea that it was a GOP memo after all:

“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.

Oh, I’ll bet I can guess. Somehow I have a sneaking suspicion that the “trustworthy official” was a Democrat. Sorry, folks: quoting an anonymous “official” telling us that the document is “authentic” doesn’t cut it, any more than Dan Rather’s assurance that the National Guard documents came from an “unimpeachable source.”
Kurtz also quotes a “Democratic Senate official” who spoke on condition on anonymity. I love this quote; count the levels of anonymous hearsay:

“It’s ridiculous to suggest that these are some talking points concocted by a Democratic staffer. The fact is, these talking points were given to a Democratic member by a Republican senator.” Democratic aides, in turn, gave the memo to reporters, as the New York Times reported last week.

So: An anonymous Democratic Senator tells us that an anonymous Republican Senator gave the document to an anonymous Democratic Congressman, who passed it on to anonymous Democratic aides, who gave it to reporters. That certainly clears up any doubts about the memo! And, oh, by the way, where did the Repuublican Senator supposedly get the memo? From a Democratic staffer? A reporter? A lobbyist? Who knows?
Kurtz notes, but does not pursue, some of the reasons we have advanced suggesting that the document is a fake. No one he interviewed explained how or why the memo was revised to eliminate four typographical errors after it was first reported by ABC, but before it was leaked by Democrats on Capitol Hill to a liberal web site. And no one he interviewed explained why Republicans would either create or circulate a document suggesting that the party was seeking political gain from the Schaivo case–a claim that is a Democratic talking point, but certainly not a Republican one.
As I said to Howard Kurtz, “The content of the memo tells me it wasn’t prepared to benefit the Republican Party, it was prepared to benefit the Democratic Party.”
UPDATE: Michelle Malkin has some excellent thoughts, too.

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