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Willisms

« The Mainstream On Gay Marriage. | WILLisms.com | Lebanese Dedication. »

Lessons From The Schiavo Memo Fiasco.

The mystery of that "GOP talking points memo" on Terri Schiavo became far less mysterious today.

The author of the memo has stepped forward to claim responsibility, Mike Allen of The Washington Post reports:

The legal counsel to Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) admitted yesterday that he was the author of a memo citing the political advantage to Republicans of intervening in the case of Terri Schiavo, the senator said in an interview last night.

Brian Darling, a former lobbyist for the Alexander Strategy Group on gun rights and other issues, offered his resignation and it was immediately accepted, Martinez said.

Allen also takes a subtle jab at bloggers for their criticism of the Post's coverage of the memo:

Conservative Web logs have challenged the authenticity of the memo, in some cases likening it to the discredited documents about Bush's National Guard service that CBS News reported last fall.

Just some background on the memo, as originally reported by the Post:

Republican officials declared, in a memo that was supposed to be seen only by senators, that they believe the Schiavo case "is a great political issue" that could pay dividends with Christian conservatives, whose support is essential in midterm elections such as those coming up in 2006.

A one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators by party leaders, said the debate over Schiavo would appeal to the party's base, or core, supporters. The memo singled out Sen. Bill Nelson(D-Fla.), who is up for reelection next year and is potentially vulnerable in a state President Bush won last year.

Again, in the initial reporting, it was "Republican officials," and the memo was "distributed to Republican senators by party leaders." None of these was correct, yet the latest article fails to address any of the inconsistencies. Indeed, Mike Allen's latest piece strikes a tone of vindication for the Post, sort of a "see, we told you so" feel.

As Powerline explains,

...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.

... it appears that ABC, the Post, and subsequently many other news outlets, took an anonymous memo by an unknown staffer, and misrepresented it as an official "GOP talking points memo" created by "Republican officials" or "party leaders" and distributed to "Republican senators."

We now know the name of the unknown staffer: Brian Darling. His boss, Senator Mel Martinez, practically called Darling "stupid" as he resigned from his staffer position. Just look at this memo:

briandarlingmemo.gif

Incorrect spelling or Terri's name, incorrect legislation identification (S. 529 instead of S. 539), and four other typographical errors. Just wrong, all around. And worthy of being called stupid.

Like clockwork, the liberal blogs are pouncing, seizing their chance to shout, "Aha! You were wrong, for once!"

John Aravosis' AMERICAblog, which calls the memo the "now-proven-real Schiavo memo," has a foot-in-mouth fest of conservative bloggers.

While some of the assertions by prominent conservative pundits were clearly overdramatic, and some were too eager to jump on the "it was dirty tricks" bandwagon, Powerline's original comments on the memo's "three possible origins" still ring true:

The first possibility is that it was created by a low-level Republican staffer. This seems possible, but highly unlikely. Only a very dim-witted staffer would 1) copy word for word from the Traditional Values site, 2) get the Senate bill number wrong, 3) make a number of silly errors, including misspelling Mrs. Schiavo's name as "Teri," and 4) mix comments about political advantage into a "talking points" memo. Moreover, the Post and ABC have tried to create the impression that the memo is an official, high-level Republican strategy document. It clearly is not that.

Daily Kos is also on top of the story, arguing that Post reporter Howard Kurtz now has egg on his face for these comments:

The flap about a Washington Post report on an unsigned strategy memo in the Terri Schiavo case, which the paper said was "distributed to Republican senators," isn't going away.

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." GOP congressional leaders say they never saw the document, whose author remains unknown. Post reporter Mike Allen, who was unaware the news service had distributed the earlier version, said last week that the paper was careful not to say it was "a Republican memo."

. . . Despite criticism from bloggers, and Allen's request for a correction, Carlisle said no correction was warranted. Late Friday, the news service sent out an "advisory" saying: "The version of the article published by the paper did not specify the authorship and noted that the memo was unsigned. The authorship remains unknown." The advisory did not retract the assertion that "party leaders" had given out the memo.

But a correction was and remains warranted. The facts surrounding the memo were severely misrepresented in a fashion that negatively impacted Republicans and opened the floodgates for a partisan circus. Just because a few conservative bloggers were a little overzealous in proclaiming the next Rathergate out of this story does not absolve the Post of its responsibility to report the facts fairly.

Kevin Drum's blog puts it this way:

I hope that Power Line and Hugh Hewitt and Michelle Malkin and the rest of the crew trying relive the glory days of Rathergate will take his lead and just STFU. Enough.

Indeed, this is not Rathergate. Not even close.

But the fact remains that this unpolished draft of a memo, never meant to see daylight, authored (or, more likely, copied and pasted, in part, from the Traditional Values Coalition website) by a staffer of one of the lowest ranking Republicans in the Senate, was represented by The Washington Post (and subsequently, the entire media establishment) as some kind of widely disseminated, highly coordinated, official GOP memo that came straight from the top.

It just wasn't.


UPDATE:

Fishkite puts it nicely:

Somehow along the way, Martinez became “party leaders,” his now-fired staffer became “the GOP,” what he wrote became “GOP Talking Points,” and Senator Harkin became the “Senate Republicans” it was supposedly distributed to (in lieu of the 55, make that 54, who never even saw a copy of it).

Michelle Malkin believes there may be more going on here:

Did Darling give a fake tip to Claybourn to try to divert attention from himself?

Malkin also notes an excessive amount of hate mail on the issue, noting:

The search for answers can be messy. Bloggers were at both their best and worst in this episode. But it was the MSM that failed to play it straight in the first place.

More from In the Agora, including a mea culpa for overreacting.

Meanwhile, Powerline wonders where Tom Harkin has been all this time.

We also thoroughly agree with Captain's Quarters on this:

Quite frankly, based on the poor presentation of this memo -- with its typographical errors, mislabeled Senate bill number, and the inept political approach it took -- it's difficult to understand why Brian Darling ever got a job in anyone's political office, let alone that of a US Senator. Darling didn't do Martinez or the GOP any favors by staying silent about his role, either. Had he owned up to writing the memo the first day it became controversial, it would have disappeared from the headlines as quickly as it rose. His resignation should really have been rejected; Martinez should have insisted on firing him instead.

LaShawn Barber (via Right Wing Nut House), meanwhile, is getting plenty of gloating comments from liberals.

UPDATE 2:

Winds of Change blog comments:

Puts the "us" back in hubris, doesn't it?

Actually a healthy dose of humility on both sides - blogs and the media - would be good about now. We're in full train-wreck "gotcha" mode, at a time when there's actually a lot of real work to do on both sides of the political aisle.

Nicely put.

Posted by Will Franklin · 7 April 2005 12:32 AM

Comments

Nice spin... The memo is proven true, and you still complain about how the media reported it.

Posted by: Ed at April 7, 2005 01:06 AM

A US Senator was passing this memo out and you still think it "wan't meant to see the light of day"?

Jesus.

Posted by: Drew at April 7, 2005 02:43 AM

If it wasn't meant to be used as talking points, why did so many Republican Senators use the talking points? How many Senators made the silly Ted Bundy connection? Also, Brian Darling was not a low-level staffer. He was the Chief Counsel. Martinez may be a low-level Senator on the grand scheme of things, but he is a Republican Senator from FLORIDA, the state where this whole case arose. Had it occurred in Wyoming then Craig Thomas and his top staff would be especially important to the case. Martinez is not a "party leader" but he is hardly irrelevant to the Schiavo case.

Posted by: Elrod at April 7, 2005 08:04 AM

It was worded that way because The Dems. kept suggesting this was not a matter for Congress. The politics of this matter was necessary. The facts are Terri Schiavo was ignored and as a result was executed by starvation and dehydration, by order of Judge Greer. It doesn't have anything to do with political gain and never will! The polls were reported wrong and as a result Terri Schiavo was killed. Don't try to confuse the issue! what ever political party we belong to this was not about the right to die with dignity! This was simple. The state of Florida allowed a husband to kill his wife, on a civil court judges order, without reviewing all the facts. As a result Terri Schiavo is now dead! ISN'T THAT ENOUGH FOR YOU LIBS OUT THERE? ARE YOU STILL NOT HAPPY? You all should be out dancing with Michael the merry widow, and rejoice that your death crusade won this time.

Posted by: Homer at April 7, 2005 08:34 AM

So the "GOP point man on the issue" who was also in the Bush White House Cabinet is now no longer a "Republican leader"?

What was that I forgot...oh yes, I remember it now - Bush: Chalabi? I never knew him.

Posted by: Observer at April 7, 2005 09:07 AM

I spewed all over American Blog!!! I feel really bad about it , but it really makes me sick! I spewed all over their little memo bash party! I am just sick about it...I probably won't be invited back. I'll be an outcast just because I spewed! I hope this won't hurt my social security status!

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at April 7, 2005 11:06 AM

I went over to see the hate mail michell got and it was really bad! I had been on another liberal blog and had noticed how truly hateful it was! Typical of what the libs seem to be about!

Posted by: Linda at April 7, 2005 04:00 PM

Mel is a moron!

Posted by: Rod Stanton at April 7, 2005 04:27 PM

The liberal/Rockefeller Republicans have once again given the MSM a mace to bludgeon all Republicans with. Last month’s star-crossed attempt by liberal Republicans to expand the role of government will hurt all Republicans. Mel is an imbecile. It is starting to look like ’06 will be a rerun of ’92 when Reagan Democrats left the Republican Party in a vain attempt to find a truly conservative party. Again liberal Republicans give the MSM the weapons to drive all Republicans out of office.

Posted by: Rod Stanton at April 8, 2005 04:59 PM

Liberal Republicans angain hurting the party by pushing big govt. I agree 06 will be a bad year for Republicans because the liberal wing seems to be in control. Mel should be forced to resign. Frist should be replaced by someone with courage and brains.

Posted by: Jo macDougal at April 9, 2005 04:29 PM