We have written extensively about the fake “talking points memo” on the Schaivo case that ABC News and the Washington Post publicized, beginning on March 18. We have pointed out, most comprehensively in the Weekly Standard, that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the memo originated with the Republicans, and considerable reason to think it may be a Democratic dirty trick. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post followed up on our critique here; he interviewed Post reporter Mike Allen, among others. Allen, like ABC News, took the position that it was all a misunderstanding: the Post had never meant to suggest that Republicans authored or distributed the memo, but only that some Republicans had received it. Allen told Kurtz:
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.
As so defined, the story would have been a flop. The memo was distributed to Democrats and reporters; the fact that it was also distributed to some Republicans would hardly be newsworthy–although, in fact, hardly any Republicans seem to have seen it. But that is not how the memo as been reported. As we have noted, the document has been widely described in the press as a “GOP talking points memo.”
Earlier today, we noted that 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 party’s leadership. The key line from these stories was, “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…” 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, have reported, falsely, that the “talking points memo” was distributed by Republican party leaders. Each of these news outlets attributed the story to “Mike Allen and Manuel Roig-Franzia, Washington Post.” Michelle 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 Post the next morning (March 20).
This hypothesis seems pretty obviously correct. And it was apparently comfirmed when blogger Jack Risko found this archived version of the Post’s article by Mike Allen and Manuel Roig-Franzia, dated 10 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.”
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 Post’s wire service and was picked up by dozens of news outlets. Before the paper went to press, however, someone at the Post apparently realized that the paper had no basis for attributing the memo to the 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 Post apparently 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. That is how everyone understood it. And, as we have pointed out in our prior posts, the Republican party has taken a giant PR hit as a result of the popular belief, fueled by news reports on the fake memo, that the party pursued the Schiavo case out of political calculation rather than principle.
Both the Post and ABC now claim that they never meant to accuse the Republicans of authoring or distributing the notorious memo. But neither has printed a retraction, clarification or correction. 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 that defamatory claim.
There is a story here, if our media wanted to pursue it. The memo in question is a pathetic piece of work. Any competent person could look at it and see that it is not a product of the Republican leadership. It is on a blank piece of paper; no letterhead, no signature, no identification. Anyone in the world could have typed it. It is incompetently produced: 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 absurd 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. The memo benefited the only party that it could possibly have benefited: the Democrats.
If there were investigative reporters working for the Washington Post, ABC, the New York Times, or any other major news organization, they might want to try to find out where the memo came from. Circumstantially, it seems extremely likely that it was produced by Democrats as a political dirty trick. But such investigation seems to be beyond the capability–more important, beyond the ambition–of our mainstream press. Only bloggers look critically at documents that cast disrepute on Republicans. Mainstream reporters accept them uncritically, at face value, no matter how inept they may be. Why is this?
Sunday morning, I’ll be on Howard Kurtz’s CNN television program, “Reliable Sources,” to discuss the “talking points memo.” It will be interesting to see whether Kurtz tries to defend his paper’s handling of the issue.
UPDATE: A reader points out that 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–Mike Allen, I assume. Someone else at the Post apparently realized that the paper lacked facts to back up its accusations. I’ve written Allen to see what he has to say about these events.