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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Doubts Raised On Schiavo Memo

Web Critics Question Authenticity Of 'Talking Points' Aimed at GOP

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page C01

Bloggers are swarming around a new target: the Terri Schiavo "talking points."

Fresh from declaring victory over CBS News and its discredited National Guard memos about President Bush, some of the same bloggers are raising questions about a strategy memo, first reported by ABC News and The Washington Post, that cast the Schiavo right-to-die case as a partisan opportunity for Republicans to stick it to Democrats.

Schiavo Strategy Memo (PDF)

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More Discussions

"Fake but Accurate Again?" says the Weekly Standard headline on an article by John Hinderaker, an attorney and conservative blogger who had challenged the CBS documents.

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 noncontroversial part of it is lifted from a Republican senator's press release.

ABC and The Post say their reports on the Schiavo memo were accurate and carefully worded. The document caused a stir because it described the Schiavo controversy as "a great political issue" that would excite "the pro-life base" and be "a tough issue for Democrats," singling out Florida's Sen. Bill Nelson. Two days after the memo was reported, the Republican-controlled Congress approved a bill, signed by Bush, to transfer jurisdiction of Schiavo's case from Florida courts to the federal judiciary in an effort to restore the brain-damaged woman's feeding tube.

"There's nothing on the face of the document to identify a source -- not only is it unsigned, there's no letterhead, no nothing," Hinderaker said yesterday. "This is literally a piece of paper with stuff typed on it that could have been written by anyone."

The controversy erupted March 18 when veteran correspondent Linda Douglass reported on "World News Tonight": "ABC News has obtained talking points circulated among Republican senators, explaining why they should vote to intervene in the Schiavo case."

Two days later, a Post article by Mike Allen and Manuel Roig-Franzia said: "An unsigned one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators, said the debate over Schiavo would appeal to the party's base, or core, supporters."

Neither report said Republicans had written the memo, although they may have left that impression, and they included no comment on the memo from party leaders. ABC's Web site went further than Douglass's on-air report with the headline: "GOP Talking Points on Terri Schiavo."

In the flood of commentary after the reports, some bloggers even speculated that the memo could have been a Democratic dirty trick.

"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," network spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said yesterday. "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." Referring to Douglass, who is out of the country, he said critics were trying "to go after a good reporter doing good reporting."

The Post's Allen said "the blog interest has been stoked by secondhand accounts" that the paper's story referred to Republican talking points. "We simply reported that the sheet of paper was distributed to Republican senators and told our readers explicitly that the document was unsigned, making clear it was unofficial," he said. "We stuck to what we knew to be true and did not call them talking points or a Republican memo. The document was provided by an official who has a long record of trustworthiness, and this official gave a precise account of the document's provenance, satisfying us that it was authentic and that it had been used in an attempt to influence Republican senators." Allen said that under the journalistic ground rules, he could not say whether the source was a Democrat or a Republican.

A Democratic Senate official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the party is not publicly discussing the memo's origin, said: "It's ridiculous to suggest that these are some talking points concocted by a Democratic staffer. The fact is, these talking points were given to a Democratic member by a Republican senator." Democratic aides, in turn, gave the memo to reporters, as the New York Times reported last week.

Amy Call, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who championed the Schiavo bill, said of the so-called talking points: "No one in our office saw them." The Tennessee Republican has said in a statement that he condemned the memo and did not authorize it. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) has asked the Rules Committee for an investigation.

Despite its unknown author, the memo has been used against Republicans. On ABC's March 19 "Good Morning America," Kate Snow cited the document in asking House Majority Leader Tom Delay, "Is this just pure politics, Mr. DeLay?"

DeLay responded that he didn't know where the talking points came from, "and I think they're disgusting."

In the spate of blog attacks on the media, critics have featured such headlines as "GOP Slimed by Another Fake Memo?," as a site called Evan's Journal put it.

Several paragraphs in the memo, containing standard arguments for the pending legislation on Schiavo, were lifted verbatim from a press release by Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who has disavowed the controversial political language that someone added and said he never saw the memo. The Traditional Values Coalition had posted Martinez's release on its Web site.

In his Weekly Standard article, Hinderaker, who writes for the blog Powerline, pointed out some of the memo's other oddities. It contained several typographical errors, such as misspelling Schiavo's first name as "Teri," and identified the Senate measure by the wrong bill number. The typos somehow vanished in a copy of the memo leaked to the liberal Web site Raw Story, whose editor said he posted the version obtained by the site.

"The content of the memo tells me it wasn't prepared to benefit the Republican Party, it was prepared to benefit the Democratic Party," Hinderaker said.

Fred Barnes, the Standard's executive editor, who also wrote about the controversy, said the initial reporting was "unfair. . . . I couldn't discover anybody showing any evidence that this memo was distributed to Republican senators." Barnes said that "the press is much tougher on Republicans" because both Democrats and reporters "tend to be liberals."

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