The Monday meeting between Vice President Biden and House Democrats took place behind closed doors. That doesn’t mean it was private.
After it broke, Politico went to work piecing together at least a partial transcript of the proceedings. The four-year-old monotopical news outlet has shown doggedness in penetrating House strategy sessions in the debt talks; last week it reported that a Texas congressman had inveighed against leaks in one such meeting. He held aloft a copy of Politico to demonstrate where the leaks had surfaced.
Sleuthing out the Biden meeting yielded more explosive allegations. In a story attributed to “several sources,” Politico reported that Biden stated that Tea Party Republicans had “acted like terrorists” in the debt negotiations. In making that charge, Biden was reportedly agreeing with a riff mouthed by Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who later acknowledged using the term “terrorists” in the discussion and said Biden hadn’t.
To read the Politico account is to conclude that the publication had a note-taker in the crowd. Here’s the most critical passage:
“We have negotiated with terrorists,” an angry Doyle said, according to sources in the room. “This small group of terrorists have made it impossible to spend any money.”
Biden, driven by his Democratic allies’ misgivings about the debt-limit deal, responded: “They have acted like terrorists.”
Those five words form a towering scoop, not to mention an offensive provocation in a country that’s just weeks from marking the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. In other words, don’t publish them lightly.
As its story explains, Politico agitated for feedback from Biden’s people:
Biden’s office initially declined to comment about what the vice president said inside the closed-door session, but after POLITICO published the remarks, spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said: “The word was used by several members of Congress. The vice president does not believe it’s an appropriate term in political discourse.”
Barkoff issued the same statement to me today.
Biden himself later told CBS’s Scott Pelley: “I did not use the terrorism word ... And I never said that they were terrorists or weren’t terrorists.” Politico updated its piece with that quip, and at least one news outlet (mis)interpreted it as a denial. Neither Barkoff’s statement nor Biden’s, of course, approaches airtightness, for the following reasons:
* Saying that the vice president doesn’t believe “terrorists” is “an appropriate term in political discourse” leaves aside the question of whether he said it. On appropriateness, Biden’s an unreliable source, too: This gaffe factory doubtless sees a lot of his past statements as inappropriate for political discourse.
* No one has alleged that he used the “terrorism” word. The allegation relates to a different word, “terrorists.”
* Biden appears to be flirting with categoricalness when he states that “I never said that they were terrorists...” But hold on: the Politico account doesn’t say that Biden “said that they were terrorists”; it says only that he argued that they’d “acted like terrorists.” A simile’s difference.
So if the vice president himself sort of denies the story on national television, you have to figure it was a busy time at his press operation. Busy, that is, hammering those trigger-happy journos at Politico. Pounding them for flimsy sourcing. Inquiring as to the motives of their note-takers. Demanding some medley of correction-retraction-clarification.
Opposite: Politico Executive Editor Jim VandeHei says, “We feel very confident the story was accurate. The Vice President’s office never sought a correction, a clarification or a retraction, so I feel confident they feel the story was accurate, too.”
When pressed on why she didn’t put a knife through the Politico story by demanding a retraction, Barkoff paused, saying she’d get back to me. She later said that the vice president’s office wouldn’t comment on that point.
The combo of anonymous sourcing behind the Politico story plus a quasi-denial on part of the vice president appears to have steered other prominent media outlets away from the mention of “terrorists.” A Nexis search of the New York Times turns up no mention of the incident in its news pages. The Washington Post’s news operation largely stayed away, though its opinion side gave it much rotation. MSNBC doesn’t appear to have given it prominence, either.
Why? Dick Stevenson, an editor at the New York Times, writes:
Obviously we were aware of the reports that Biden had likened the Republicans to terrorists. But we had no first-hand (or even second-hand) confirmation, and the vice president’s office was disputing that he had said any such thing. We debated whether we needed at least to take account of the controversy, but decided against doing so since we could not establish that Biden had said what was being attributed to him. Maybe there is more to this than we know. But on the face of it, it is a classic example of how what were once pretty clear-cut decisions based on well-established standards are now complicated by the reality that stories increasingly get injected into the public dialogue quickly and often with minimal journalistic vetting — leaving news organizations at risk of being perceived as deliberately ignoring them if they make a judgment against publishing.
Stevenson — probably not gaining a lot of friends over at Politico today.*
The Washington Post didn’t answer questions on the matter by posting time, nor did MSNBC.
Is this a classic Washington mystery? Nah. Until the vice president’s office delivers a scrutiny-withstanding denial, the “terrorists” story appears fair game for recirculation.
*Blogger’s Note: Stevenson writes in to clarify: “I wasn’t criticizing Politico at all, or doubting the quality of their reporting. I was lamenting the difficulty of deciding whether to plunge into the fray in situations where a hard-to-confirm-or-disprove story gains currency in the round-the-clock news cycle, leaving us with unpalatable choices – taking on faith that an assertion reported elsewhere is true, or being accused of deliberately ignoring it.” Fair enough. Whatever the case here, the Erik Wemple blogger apologizes to Stevenson for backfilling his quote with snark, a move that reflects a lack of class and consideration. He had come forth with a quick and thoughtful reply about a journalism question. That reply should have been allowed to stand on its own.