Opinion: Media Mangle

Media Employ Clinton-Like Parsing

In effort to keep from admitting an error, ABC and WaPo weasel out

There’s a phenomenon we’ve witnessed countless times since about 1994, when the Republican ascendancy could no longer be denied by Democrats and their allies in the mainstream media.

Here’s the drill. The media make a mistake in reporting, invariably putting Republicans or conservatives in a bad light. This mistake goes out on every wire service in the world, gets repeated on the pages of every daily newspaper that subscribes to The Associated Press, gets recounted numerous times on the network broadcasts and cable shows, and, finally, is proven to be untrue.

A few scattered corrections and retractions may appear, finally, but they never get much play and are buried on inside pages. Only Fox News, you know, the “biased” cable channel, makes a visible correction. By then, of course, the “facts” have become “undeniable truth,” buttressed by many Leno and Letterman monologue jokes and talk-show appearances by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Michael Moore and Martin Sheen.

It happened again about two weeks ago, as a matter of fact. ABC News and The Washington Post both ran a story during the Terri Schiavo debate in Congress saying that Republican leaders in Congress passed around a talking-points memo describing the political mileage the GOP could get from the Schiavo case. If true, it could only be classified as crass political opportunism.

This story went through the entire cycle mentioned in the second paragraph above. Meanwhile, bloggers (Oh, no! Not them again!) began dissecting the events and the reporting. It was soon clear that no one, least of all ABC News and The Washington Post, could vouch for the genesis of this document, which was printed on plain paper with no header to identify its origin.

Since the first story on March 18, bloggers have pretty much destroyed its credibility. Still, the “facts” became “truth,” just as they have in dozens of other examples over the past few years. No paper that I could find has corrected AP’s second-hand errors in their pages, and Leno and Letterman don’t do one-liner corrections.

But what of ABC News and The Washington Post? What have they had to say on the matter? Not much. In fact, weasely would be the best way to describe their behavior. Almost immediately the two media giants began waffling, saying they had never actually said the document was written by Republicans. Then they claimed they never actually said it was distributed by Republicans. What they said they could actually say with confidence was that some Republicans had received the spurious document.

That’s a far cry from the original “revelations” by ABC and the WaPo, now, isn’t it? So, that being the case, what have they done to correct the record? ABC, which called the document “GOP talking points” in its original story, has admitted no error.

In comments to The Washington Post’s media writer Howard Kurtz in a March 30 piece, ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said: “We have no doubt it was distributed to Republicans. The fact that people are trying to make it about something else is not surprising. It’s what we deal with every day from all sides.” So, to Schneider, it’s the media that is the victim.

And what about The Washington Post? Mike Allen, one of the Post reporters who wrote the original story, had this to say in comments to 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.”

But is that really the case? In a later story by Kurtz, things get murkier. He writes: “It turns out that The Post‘s news service put out an early version of the March 20 story — published by numerous other papers — that said the talking points, which touted the Schiavo case as a political opportunity, were ‘distributed to Republican senators by party leaders.'” (Emphasis added.)

Reporter Mike Allen claimed he didn’t know that the Post’s news service had sent this “earlier version” out to its subscribers. Even so, who is supposed to have written the words “by party leaders”? The wire service managing editor confirmed to Kurtz that those words were not added by a wire service editor. They were Allen’s words. You know, the reporter who said he had never implied that the document had anything to do with Republicans. So why did he write those words? Did he think them to be true? Did he just assume that was the case, even without evidence? Did he just make it up? Inquiring minds want to know.

Want even more weaseling? Get this. The Post’s news service has said it has no error to correct.

So, a story that was wrong from the beginning has not been corrected by most media that ran it. Worse, the people who produced the stories have parsed their words Clinton-like to keep from having to admit a mistake, or a bias (you decide). Consequently, those news consumers who were given this erroneous information have not been notified that it was incorrect. Abroad in the land is a blatant falsehood, the result of a breach of journalism’s ethics that has not been admitted.

The decline continues.

Ham is publisher of Carolina Journal and vice president of The John Locke Foundation.