Topic: Media

Scoreboard's Shameful Confession: "We Believed the Washington Post!"
(3/30/2005)

It now appears that the revolting "memo circulated by Republican leaders" to members of the Senate, the one that pointed out what a great "political issue" Schiavo's case was for the GOP, may not have been from Republican leaders or even Republicans, and might not have even been distributed to Senators. The story sure made the Republicans who were hell-bent on interfering with the justice system in the Terri Schiavo matter look bad, though…not that they needed much assistance in that department. The question is, was that the reason ABC News broke a dubious story, and the reason the rest of the media, including the Washington Post, where the Scoreboard encountered it, lapped it up?

Oh, who knows, at this point? The amazing thing is that after Rather-memo-whateveryoucallit-gate, after the New York Times collusion on the silly "missing explosives" story in the waning days of the 2004 campaign, after repeated and irrefutable evidence of sloppiness, bias, incompetence, arrogance and stupidity on the part of the mainstream news establishment The Ethics Scoreboard still, like most Americans, naively, uncritically and reflexively believes news accounts just because it comes from a "reputable" news source. D'oh!

Why? Well, probably for the same reason that ABC News believed its four "anonymous sources" who told it about the alleged memo in the first place, according to a report by The Post's media critic Howard Kurtz. It seemed right, because ABC just knew that cynical politics were at the root of this extraordinary power-grab by the GOP Congress. [For the record, memo or no memo, The Scoreboard still thinks so…but with perhaps a little less certainty than before.]

So did ABC find any Senator who would confirm that he or she actually received the memo? No. Did it find out who wrote or distributed the memo? No. Did it ever link the memo to any specific "Republican leader"? No. Nevertheless, ABC News reported that the memo "was distributed to Republican Senators" in a manner that most, and perhaps all, readers would interpret as meaning that it was distributed by the GOP high command. And that in fact is what subsequent stories (such as the Post's) reported, notwithstanding ABC's current defense that it never actually said who distributed the document.

ABC's spokesperson, quoted by Kurtz, clearly was tuned out during the Rather fiasco:

"ABC News had very reliable, multiple sources who indicated the memo was distributed to Republicans on the floor of the Senate, and that is what we reported," the network's Jeffrey Schneider told Kurtz. "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."

The self-righteousness is misplaced, Jeffrey old boy. Why, exactly, are your sources so "reliable" when none of the people the memo was supposedly distributed to have come forward to say they received it? If the memo has no source, name or letter-head, why is it a news story at all? It shouldn't be, unless is comes from someone significant: Karl Rove, Bill Frist, Rush Limbaugh, someone like that. Reporting that the memo was distributed on the Senate floor automatically invites the presumption that it was distributed by Republicans. You "have no doubt" that it was: why? If that's just a presumption, it is royally unethical to pass it off as fact. If you have proof, let's see it. If not, well, the memo could have come from Terri Schiavo's parents, Randall Terry, Dan Rather or Mr. Peanut. It makes a difference, don't you think?

And let's lay off the sneering "the fact that people are trying to make [the memo] about something else is not surprising" bit. (Translation: "There go those conservative zealots, blaming the messenger again!") Your network reported as news the distribution to Republican Senators of a "memo" that had no name or source attached, had (according to Kurtz's report) multiple misspellings and had pieces lifted directly from a GOP Senator's (Florida's Mel Martinez) press release. You had no way to determine that it went to all GOP Senators as the story implied, and no hard confirmation that it was received by any of them. Nonetheless, ABC announced the story in the middle of the firestorm over the GOP effort on behalf of Ms. Schiavo, in a way that was guaranteed to reflect badly on the GOP and the Administration. ABC deserves every bit of criticism it gets for this wretched abuse of broadcasting and journalistic ethics, and while the fact that most of the criticism has come (so far) from the Right doesn't change the fact that it is legitimate.

Meanwhile, Kurtz, a critic from the Left, pulls a whopper when he writes:

While there is no hard evidence that the memo is fake, there are several strange things about it, including the basic fact that no one seems to know who wrote it and that the non- controversial part of it is lifted from a Republican senator's press release.

Uh, that's not the point, Howard. The point is that there is no hard evidence that the memo is genuine! Again, this is Dan Rather territory. You have to prove the document is genuine before you rely on it for a news story. Is this really so hard a concept?

Apparently so, at least for our current crop of ethics-challenged journalists, just as the concept of not taking everything you read in the Washington Post as true is hard for us ethicists. Well, we're learning. In the current political environment, when issues involve Republicans, Democrats, and such easy villains as Tom DeLay, it is obvious that fair, unbiased and responsible reporting by the national media cannot and must not be assumed.

The Ethics Scoreboard, accordingly, will try its utmost not to assume it.

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