"Citizen journalists"? Try partisan hacks

Right-wing bloggers shrieked that the GOP Schiavo memo was a "liberal media" fraud. Now that they've been proven wrong, are they apologizing? Why, no!

Published April 8, 2005 9:02PM (EDT)

This time, the hoax was on them.

Still gloating over their role in unmasking CBS's faulty National Guard memo story last September, right-wing bloggers launched a new memo-based crusade against the so-called liberal media last month, one that turned out to be completely phony. But unlike CBS and its tarred former anchor, Dan Rather, who eventually admitted their mistakes in the Memogate affair, these bloggers (many of whom were also involved in the CBS campaign) haven't had the guts to apologize for their blunder.

When the Terri Schiavo story became national news in mid-March, a curious subplot revolved around a talking-points memo that was reportedly distributed to Republican senators. Reported first by ABC News, and then by the Washington Post, the existence of a memo, which made crass -- and ill-advised, it turns out -- assertions that the Schiavo story was a political winner for Republicans, gave Democrats ammunition in their insistence that the GOP's involvement in the right-to-die case was more about politics than morality. The document, which described the case as "a great political issue" that would excite "the pro-life base" and be "a tough issue for Democrats," became an embarrassment to Republicans, especially when subsequent polls showed the Schiavo controversy to be an across-the-board loser for Republicans.

Right-wing bloggers, however, thought they smelled a rat, and in an almost laughable effort to connect nonexistent dots, they set off on an "investigation" and concluded the memo was likely a farce from the get-go, surmising that a wily, unknown Democratic dirty trickster had gotten a willing press to report that the memo came from the Republican side.

Led into battle by Power Line, which posted over a dozen conspiratorial-sounding posts about the memo, bloggers seized on its misspellings as proof of deception and, relying on echo chamber tips from GOP staffers on the Hill, became more and more sure in their pursuit. "Is This the Biggest Hoax Since the Sixty Minutes Story?" a March 21 Power Line headline asked. Then, on March 30, came "Talking Points Story Goes Up in Smoke." (Time magazine honored Power Line as Blog of the Year in 2004 for its role in the CBS scandal.)

But then, late on Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the author of the memo had stepped forward: An aide to Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida admitted he had written it. Now the facts are clear: The memo is real, and it was written by the Republican side and distributed by the Republican side, making it a GOP talking-points memo.

The irony is that the memo wasn't all that significant to the larger Schiavo story. Conservatives magnified its importance by suggesting that it had led Americans to conclude that Republicans were playing politics with the right-to-die case. (A vast majority of Americans, including self-identified conservatives, told pollsters the administration was wrong to get involved in the Schiavo case.) But in fact the existence of the memo was not that widely reported -- no more widely reported than Rep. Tom DeLay's comment to conservative activists that Terri was a gift from God for their cause, nor than that conservative Christian groups were using the story for fundraising activities.

Nonetheless, dealt a weak hand in the Schiavo case, bloggers all went in on a bluff. And now they refuse to pay up. In fact, they're actually congratulating themselves for helping "get to the bottom" of the story. But the meltdown has exposed their often mindless naiveté.

Writing in Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, Power Line's John Hinderaker insisted the memo just didn't add up, that it couldn't have been written by a Republican because it was just so ... inappropriate: "These political observations are not 'talking points' at all. These are comments on political strategy which would be out of place in argument on the Senate floor, or in a media interview." That's a basis on which to launch a conspiracy theory?

And here's Power Line as it hatched the nonstory: The memo "does not sound like something written by a conservative; it sounds like a liberal fantasy of how conservatives talk. What conservative would write that the case of a woman condemned to death by starvation is 'a great political issue'? Maybe such a person exists, but I doubt it."

On Wednesday, the right-wing Washington Times demonstrated its unique brand of naiveté when it further hyped the episode by reporting that it had contacted all the Republicans in the Senate and none had admitted they were behind the talking-points memo. (Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, insisted the memo was "an invention of the press.") Does the Times really think that partisan, and as it turns out erroneous, denials qualify as news?

Aside from their sloppy speculation, the episode also revealed the cloud of arrogance that hangs around bloggers from the CBS Memogate crowd. Indeed, this week right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin, busy peddling another false story -- which claims that Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photographers who captured blood-curdling images from Iraq had ties to terrorists -- demanded to know why Pulitzer judges hadn't met with bloggers to discuss their conspiracy theory before handing out their prestigious prize. Right-wing site Little Green Footballs thundered: "The media establishment puts their thumb in the eye of the blogosphere, awarding a Pulitzer Prize for photography to the Associated Press's anonymous and very possibly staged photographs of terrorists committing murder on Baghdad's Haifa Street" (emphasis added).

The only proof provided for the charge was a link to another right-wing Web site that asked supposedly probing questions about the circumstances of the photographs -- questions that were about as insightful as the ones originally posed about the Schiavo memo last week.

Even when proven to be categorically wrong, reckless bloggers don't flinch. Examining the rubble Wednesday night, after the Post published its story about Sen. Martinez, Power Line concluded, "This story serves as an object lesson in how the mainstream media can take a dopey, one-page memo by an unknown staffer and use it to discredit the entire Republican party." Only someone who is shameless, and spends weeks accusing both reporters and Democratic elected officials of being liars, could turn around and announce that a manufactured episode had served as "an object lesson in how the mainstream media" tries to discredit Republicans.

Power Line was hardly alone in its denial. "If this [Martinez] story is true, ABC News, the Washington Post, and virtually every news outlet that ran the infamous story should now publish a retraction," concluded blogger Josh Claybourn. Retraction? His is the same Web site that on March 26 rushed to post an online "exclusive," which consisted of bogus allegations leveled by anonymous Republicans staffers that an aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was behind the Schiavo memo. Claybourn's "extensive investigations" into the memo were riddled with errors and false accusations, yet when the story blew up in his face he demanded that ABC and the Post issue retractions.

These "citizen journalists" obviously aren't interested in documenting facts. They're ideological bullies masquerading as media critics who want the press to stay away from stories (and images) that they deem unacceptable. And the sooner the mainstream press understands that, and stops anxiously amplifying bloggers' conspiracy of the week, the better off it will be.

For proof of how irresponsible bloggers and their enablers in the conservative press can be, here's a list of Schiavo memo greatest hits:

  • "Talking Points Story Imploding?" Power Line headline, March 22.
  • "Cliff Kincaid, editor of [Accuracy in Media], said evidence suggests that the memo may have been manufactured as part of an effort to make Republicans look bad," Accuracy in Media, March 24.
  • "Apparently the explanation is [that the memo] was forged! The memo was made up by Democrat staffers," Rush Limbaugh, March 24.
  • "There is not a bit of evidence connecting the memo to any Republican, and, for all of the reasons we have repeatedly spelled out on this site, there are excellent reasons to believe it is a hoax perpetrated by still-unidentified Democrats," John Hinderaker, Power Line, March 26.
  • "I still believe the [mainstream media] has no basis for implying over and over again that the memo was distributed by Republicans," Michelle Malkin, March 28.
  • "But his [the Washington Post reporter's] stated reason for believing the memo is not a hoax -- 'senators had it on the floor' -- is laughable," Hinderaker, Weekly Standard, March 28.
  • "ABCNews.com still hasn't retracted its unsubstantiated characterization of the memo as 'GOP Talking Points,'" Malkin, March 30.
  • "So rather than an example of aggressive reporting, the [Schiavo] memo story turns out to be yet another instance of crude liberal bias, in this case against both Republicans and those who fought to have Schiavo's feeding tube restored," Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes, March 28.
  • "Closer examination by The American Spectator, talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, The Weekly Standard, and Accuracy in Media (AIM) indicates that the memo is a fraud -- a political dirty trick, if you will, specifically aimed at causing public revulsion at Republicans," Newsmax.com, March 31.
  • "The only basis for blaming Republicans was the unsubstantiated allegation that the memo was spread among Republican senators. Yet no senator stepped forward and said, 'Yes, I got that memo,'" Barnes, Weekly Standard, April 4.

    And this from Power Line Wednesday night, just four hours before the Post debunked the whole charade: "Some already suspect that the memo is a Democratic dirty trick. The inability of Democratic staffers to speak accurately about the matter does nothing to dispel that suspicion."

    Despite that dismal record, on Thursday bloggers showed very little appetite for self-reflection. In fact, scanning the blogs involved in the memo story, readers found few corrections or references to lessons learned.

    According to Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit, which helped hype the story early on, the take-away from the episode was about the mainstream press and how it "will publish stuff without much in the way of authentication."

    That's an art some bloggers have already perfected.

  • By Eric Boehlert

    Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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