Newsweek's Careless Reporting

In Newsweek's "blog watch" section, due to hit the stands today apparently, one of the group blogs that I write for, In the Agora, is mentioned. We would normally welcome the mention in a major publication, but in this case they did a very poor job of reporting on the facts of the "Schiavo memo" story as it concerned that blog and a couple of others. The story was essentially this: ABC News and the Washington Post ran a story about a memo that was allegedly distributed by "Republican party leaders" to Senators on the floor of the Senate, and it included some talk about the political viability of the issue. I mentioned it myself when those stories went to print. There were many things about the memo that didn't quite seem right. For instance, it was not on any letterhead at all; it got the number of the bill wrong; it misspelled Terri Schiavo's name. Many people believed that it might be another fake memo, a la the Dan Rather situation from last year.

Josh Claybourn, one of the founders of ITA, figured it was probably a fake and did a lot of legwork to try and find out for sure. He spent hours on the phone with producers from ABC, reporters from the Post and the NY Times, and staffers for multiple Senators. He quickly discovered that in fact neither ABC nor the Post knew for sure where the memo originated. All 55 Republican Senators denied on the record having written it, and almost all of them denied even having seen it. Some of them suggested that it may have come from Democratic staffers, and a couple of them told Josh off the record that they had confirmed that it came from Harry Reid's office. He posted about that at ITA, but was careful to add that he could not confirm this and that he was skeptical because the sources would not go on the record. Ultimately, the truth came out - the memo was written by a legal counsel for Republican Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, who has since resigned in disgrace. But a week before the truth came out, Josh had discovered that his sources on the Hill had deceived him and he printed a retraction immediately.

So now comes Newsweek's BlogWatch for this week, which sums up the whole situation thusly:

Right-wing blogs and falsely accused Dems of faking GOP talking points on Terri Schiavo; would like to see them eat a bit of crow.

First, it's absurd to group ITA and PowerlineBlog together as "right wing blogs". The other writers for ITA lean to the conservative side, but much more to the libertarian wing of conservatism. And they are all far more thoughtful and reasonable than anything you will find at Powerline, which is home to little more than the kind of conservatism you find in an AOL chatroom. The big difference between the two is in the intellectual honesty they display. Powerline bluntly declared that the memo was fake, while Josh was far more careful. He didn't declare that it came from Democratic staffers, he only said that Republican staffers had accused them of writing it, and he said that there was some reason to doubt that accusation because none of them would allow their name to be used. And when he found out that was false, he immediately retracted the charge, saying:

Late Friday evening I posted the accusations of four supposed Senate staffers who claimed a Democratic aide had distributed the "GOP" talking points memo. I now have reason to believe that in unraveling a hoax I was hoaxed myself. I haven't been able to confirm a Sen. Reid aide was the source and barring more conclusive evidence I have removed the accused's name from the original post out of fairness and accuracy. Those who made the accusations are nowhere to be found. Sen. Reid's office labels the accusation "completely ridiculous" and Sen. Santorum's office would not officially confirm or deny it, saying the investigation was "up to you, the bloggers, and the media."

I'm disturbed and upset, both with those who anonymously made the accusation and myself for posting it without more judicious restraint. Inevitably someone will accuse me of hypocrisy and that's a fair criticism.

You can contrast this with the way Powerline handled it, which was far worse. They acted the way partisan hacks always act, while Josh did not. And it's also worth noting that Radley Balko, who owns, did not even mention ITA in the post that Newsweek links to, the one that supposedly says he wishes ITA and Powerline would "eat a little crow." He didn't mention ITA because Josh had already eaten his crow on it, a week earlier. He only hammers Powerline for not handling it that way:

My question is, what will the screeching bomb-throwers at Powerline do about this? They've been pushing the "fake memo" meme for weeks. They repeatedly stated matter-of-factly that the memo was a "fake," and implied over and over again that it was a Democrat dirty trick. If a media figure had made the same mistake, the Powerline mob would be calling for a resignation. It'd be nice if Powerline provided an apology and retraction.

The fact is that Josh handled the situation the right way all the way along. He posted his doubts about the memo publicly, he did the legwork necessary to get both sides of the story, he posted the accusations as accusations, not as verifiable fact, and even pointed out that there was reason to doubt them, and when found to be false he immediately retracted them and apologized. Anyone who expects the folks at Powerline to behave that way obviously hasn't paid any attention to them. But one would hope that Newsweek would correct their article to distinguish between two opposite ways of handling the situation rather than lazily grouping ITA and Powerline as "right wing blogs" and therefore equally culpable. But somehow I doubt that Newsweek will be anywhere near as forthright as Josh was all along.

P.S. As an example of the excellent and thought provoking work of my fellow ITA contributors, I highly recommend this post by Paul Musgrave on the subject of marriage and the state. He brilliantly debunks the notion of a single "pre-political", traditional and eternal concept of marriage, a simplistic and ahistorical fiction often offered up by the opponents of gay marriage.

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