Fool me once…Won’t get fooled again.
John Hinderaker, today:
I’ve been meaning for the last several days to do a post on the Able Danger story, expressing the view that some conservatives have pushed the story too far, in view of the great uncertainty about whether the key “fact” in the story–that Able Danger operatives identified Mohammed Atta as an al Qaeda member prior to September 11–was true. In the meantime, a number of others have beaten me to it.
Here is the point I really want to emphasize: the Able Danger story was yet another example of the peril of anonymous sources. We have repeatedly attacked the use of anonymous sources by organs like the New York Times and Washington Post; now Congressman Weldon has done the same thing. The whole story came from an anonymous source who claimed to have been part of military intelligence, and of Able Danger.
Importantly, this is not a situation where an anonymous source supplied a tip that journalists and others could then go out and investigate. No: in this instance the anonymous source’s alleged memory of having seen Atta’s name on an Able Danger list was the whole story. No one could possibly evaluate the credibility of the claim without, as a starting point, knowing who it is who claims to have the memory.
The moral, I think, is that we should be extremely skeptical of any news story predicated on the accounts of anonymous sources, no matter how we feel about the implications of the story.
I bet you can see this one coming from a mile away.
John Hinderaker, March 2005:
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.
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.
The legal counsel to Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) admitted yesterday that he was the author of a memo citing the political advantage to Republicans of intervening in the case of Terri Schiavo, the senator said in an interview last night.
Brian H. Darling, 39, a former lobbyist for the Alexander Strategy Group on gun rights and other issues, offered his resignation and it was immediately accepted, Martinez said.
I’m sorry. I didn’t hear what you were saying about conservatives pushing a story too far because I was laughing so hard rockets were flying out of my butt.