That Schiavo memo? Kill the messenger

Why hold Republican Sen. Mel Martinez responsible for the memo he gave Tom Harkin when you can blame the Democrats and the media instead?

Published April 8, 2005 12:54PM (EDT)

Just two days ago, the Washington Times was hyping the possibility that the GOP memo promising political gains from the Terri Schiavo case was a fraud perpetuated by Senate Democrats or the liberal mainstream press. It turns out that wasn't exactly right. The memo was written by Brian Darling, the legal counsel for Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, and Martinez handed it to Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

What does the Washington Times say today? With nary a word of its own false reporting, the Times puts the blame for the memo squarely on the staffer who wrote it and the Democrats who may have leaked it to the press. Mel Martinez, in the Times' eyes, is merely a victim -- just like he was a victim in 2004, the Times says, when his campaign staff sent out a mailing that referred to fellow Republican Bill McCollum as "the new darling of the homosexual extremists." Martinez claimed he knew nothing about the 2004 mailing until a reporter brought it to his attention; this time around, he claims he was unaware of the contents of the Schiavo memo, despite the fact that he handed it to Harkin as an example of some "talking points" the Republicans were developing. The Times reports: "A source familiar with the 2004 campaign said that both the campaign-mailer incident and the Schiavo memo speak more to Mr. Martinez's easygoing management style than an attempt to use the case of Mrs. Schiavo, who died last week 13 days after her feeding tube was removed, for his party's political gain."

What about the 2004 press release from the Martinez campaign, the one that referred to U.S. immigration agents who seized Elian Gonzales as "armed thugs"? Martinez blamed that one on his staff, too, as the Miami Herald reminds us today. Was that the innocent human failing of "easygoing" Mel? As one Martinez supporter tells the Herald, "You can only blame staff so many times before people come back and look at you.''

People, maybe, but not the Washington Times. In today's Times, reporter Brian DeBose suggests that the Schiavo memo wasn't all that bad after all -- that Martinez's legal counsel had merely "added a political strategy point to a memo on the merits of a bill to save Terri Schiavo's life." A political strategy point? No. "This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue," Darling wrote in the memo. "This is a great political issue, because Senator Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a cosponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats."

But never mind all of that. DeBose explains on the Times' blog that many Capitol Hill reporters believe that the leak of the memo was the "disgusting" part of the whole affair -- and he doesn't mean "just a little disgusting." The leak was "disgusting," DeBose writes, "just as many view abortion as disgusting; just as many District residents view as disgusting being shot to death with no way to defend themselves because the city has made it its business to infringe upon their Second Amendment rights; just as many residents also view as disgusting paying federal taxes without a voting representative in Congress."

But even that's not the worst part, DeBose says. "From a journalistic perspective the real tragedy of the memo story is the irresponsible reporting that took place. ABC News and The Washington Post got spun on a story invented by the Democratic leadership that was wrong, not totally fabricated but wrong. And numerous other papers picked it up without doing their due diligence to find out the truth as this paper did."

What was wrong about the initial reports from ABC and the Post? DeBose doesn't say. What was wrong about his report -- the one in the Times Wednesday that said not a single Republican Senator remembered seeing the memo and suggested that it might be fake created by the Democrats? DeBose doesn't say that, either.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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