Real Memo, Fake Story

With the revelation that an aide to Senator Mel Martinez was the source of the widely-trumpeted “GOP talking points memo,” we have written this article for the Daily Standard to summarize the story as it has developed to date:

For the past two and one-half weeks, Washington has been roiled by controversy over an alleged “GOP talking points memo” that, according to ABC News and the Washington Post, was circulated among Republican Senators on the evening of March 17, when the Senate took up debate on the Terri Schiavo federal jurisdiction bill. The memo, of which Republicans disclaimed any knowledge, set forth familiar arguments in favor of preserving Schiavo’s life, but in addition said:

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.

The document’s existence was first reported by ABC News, which headlined it as a “GOP talking points memo.” On the morning of March 19, ABC’s Kate Snow ambushed Tom DeLay with the memo and used it to question the motives of Republicans generally:

KATE SNOW: ABC News has obtained some talking points that Senate Republicans were circulating, outlining why Republicans should be involved in this case.
Graphic: “Republican talking points”
KATE SNOW: Here’s a couple of the points. The pro-life base will be excited, and it’s a tough issue for Democrats, which, which raises the question, is this just pure politics, Mr. DeLay?
TOM DELAY: Kate, I don’t know where those talking points come from, and I think they’re disgusting.
KATE SNOW: Senate Republicans.

The other news source that initially publicized the memo was the Washington Post. In its initial report on the evening of March 19, the Post, in a story carrying the byline of Mike Allen and Manuel Roig-Franzia, wrote:

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.
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. The memo singled out Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is up for reelection next year and is potentially vulnerable in a state President Bush won last year.

The Post‘s story was picked up by the Reuters news service and by dozens of newspapers, and was, in large part, the basis for a widespread popular belief that the leadership of the Republican party had played politics with the Schiavo case. The memo was widely cited by media outlets and liberal commentators as evidence that congressional Republicans were insincere in their support for Schiavo, and were using the case to pursue political advantage. The Post itself, however, apparently thought better of its original story by the time it went to press on March 20. Its claim that the memo was authored by “Republican officials” and was distributed by “party leaders” was deleted from the version of the story that ran in the Post. Instead, the published version said, more antiseptically:

An unsigned one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators, said the debate over Schiavo would appeal to the party’s base, or core, supporters. The memo singled out Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is up for reelection next year and is potentially vulnerable in a state President Bush won last year.

With several other bloggers, we soon began raising questions about the source of the memo. In response to those questions, both ABC News and Washington Post reporter Mike Allen backtracked, claiming that they had never suggested that the Republicans had authored or distributed the memo, but only that some Republican senators had received it. Allen told the Post‘s Howard 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.

In view of the March 19 version of the Post‘s story, this claim was plainly untrue, although it is perhaps possible that the Post sent out on its newswire a version of the article that Allen had not seen, despite the fact that it carried his byline.
Meanwhile, a copy of the memo was posted online. It was thereby revealed as an amateurish production; the memo was unsigned, on plain paper rather than letterhead; it got the Senate bill number wrong, misspelled Terri Schiavo’s name, and contained a number of other typographical errors. Power Line and several other blogs questioned whether the memo was authentic at all. There were, as we wrote, several possible sources for the document:

The memo has three possible origins. The first possibility is that it was created by a low-level Republican staffer. This seems possible, but highly unlikely. Only a very dim-witted staffer would 1) copy word for word from the Traditional Values site, 2) get the Senate bill number wrong, 3) make a number of silly errors, including misspelling Mrs. Schiavo’s name as “Teri,” and 4) mix comments about political advantage into a “talking points” memo. Moreover, the Post and ABC have tried to create the impression that the memo is an official, high-level Republican strategy document. It clearly is not that.
The second possibility is that the memo was created by a lobbying group, presumably the Traditional Values Coalition, since most of the content of the memo comes word for word from their web site. [Ed.: We have subsequently been told that these non-controversial paragraphs were originally published by Senator Mel Martinez’s office.] But the controversial political observations–“the pro-life base will be excited,” etc.–are inappropriate for an organization like the Coalition. They sound as if they are written from the internal perspective of the Republican party (“this is a tough issue for Democrats”).
The third possibility is that the memo is a Democratic dirty trick. At the moment, that looks most likely.

That was a reasonable inference from the facts that were then available, but it turned out to be wrong. On the other hand, our conviction that “In any event, . . . the suggestion that this is some kind of high-level Republican strategy memo is ludicrous” was borne out in the end.
The controversy continued until April 6, when the Washington Times moved the story forward by publishing the results of its own survey, in which all 55 Republican Senators denied having seen the memo, or having any knowledge of its origins. This cast further doubt on the claim that the memo had been distributed to Republican Senators, and raised further questions about where, in fact, the memo had come from.
The following morning, the mystery was finally solved. Democratic Senator Tom Harkin telephoned Republican Senator Mel Martinez and said that Martinez had handed him a copy of the memo on the Senate floor. This caused Martinez to interrogate has staff, and an aide named Brian Darling confessed that he authored the memo. The story, as related by Martinez and his staff, is that Darling wrote the memo in draft form, and Martinez, thinking it was a standard checklist of arguments in favor of preserving Terri Schiavo’s life, then handed it to Harkin. From Harkin, the memo found its way to ABC News and the Washington Post.
The Democrats were thus not guilty, as many of us believed, of creating the memo as a dirty trick. However, the central claim of many Democrats, newspapers, and commentators–that the memo was the product of the Republican congressional leadership and constituted an official “GOP talking points memo”–has likewise been proved false. It was this characterization that justified the memo’s use as an indictment of congressional Republicans’ motives in the Schiavo case. If the memo had been correctly described from the beginning, as the inept product of a freshman senator’s aide, with no responsibility for Republican political strategy, which may not have been read by a single Republican senator, it is questionable whether it would even have merited a news story.

Notwithstanding the revelation of the memo’s source, some of the most important questions about this story remain unanswered. Foremost among them is, what led the Post to report, on March 19, that the memo was written by “Republican officials” and “distributed to Republican senators by party leaders