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Jon Stewart rips ‘media’ over Secret Service mishap, but what about The Washington Post?

In an appearance before a House committee this morning, U.S. Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy provided some details on a much-discussed March 4 incident outside the White House involving agents under his command. As Clancy told it, two agents returning from a retirement party for a colleague “nudged” aside an “orange construction-type barrel” as their car approached a Secret Service checkpoint. The vehicle then “moved up to the checkpoint where the officer typically would be positioned,” said Clancy.

“That’s the extent of the video we saw,” said Clancy, who sustained tough questioning from members of the House Appropriations Committee.

That depiction appears milder than the scenario first described by The Washington Post in a March 11 scoop initially headlined online, “Secret Service agents investigated for late-night car accident at White House.” (The current online headline is: “Secret Service agents investigated after car hits White House barricade.”) That story, by The Post’s Carol Leonnig, reported on an investigation of allegations that the agents “drove a government car into White House security barricades” and that they had been drinking at the party.*

Barricades, as Washington tourists know so well, are large, heavy and intimidating. Orange construction-type barrels are nudgeable.

As Jon Stewart last night riffed on “The Daily Show,” TV news outlets rolled with cinematic coverage of the goings-on at the perimeter of the White House. A “Good Morning America” tease cited by Stewart, for instance, promised this story: “Two agents crashed into the White House, allegedly driving drunk.” NBC News’s Lester Holt: “Allegations of a car crash at the White House.” Shepard Smith of Fox News: “Wasted, driving, running into things.”

In an interesting twist, Stewart turned to Leonnig for a voice to rebut the TV coverage. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Leonnig said, “They are moving at a pretty glacial pace in this car. They’re going pretty slow. They push and nudge temporary barrels with their car.” Responding to Stewart’s approach, Cameron Barr, The Post’s national editor, notes, “When he shifts to ‘what really happened,’ he shows a clip of Carol Leonnig. Rightly so — she has and continues to be the authority on this story. We’re very proud of her work.” As for how some TV outlets depicted the events first described by The Post, Barr retorts, “We cannot be held accountable for the work of other journalists.”

Some of the difficulty, to be sure, stems from The Post’s headline. “Car accident,” after all, suggests destruction, multiple emergency vehicles and a lot of flashing lights; nudging a barrel — that’s something that most motorists do at one point in their driving lives. According to Barr, the car-accident headline was the work of an editor on staff — not Leonnig. It was changed “minutes after publication at Carol’s request to more precisely capture the incident,” notes Barr, who says it “was never part of the story.” The story contains no notification of the headline change.

Asked about the difference between “barricades” and the orange barrels, Barr defends his newspaper’s efforts to nail down murky particulars in real time:

Our initial March 11 story reported that officials were investigating allegations of a car hitting White House barricades. Subsequent reporting for the March 12 story showed that the agents drove through security tape and used the vehicle to push aside barriers. As that story says: “According to people familiar with the incident, they drove through police tape and then hit a temporary barricade, using the car to push aside some barrels. An agency official said Thursday that the car was not damaged.”
In other words, we reported what we knew to be accurate when we knew it.

As noted by the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, other news outlets, following The Post, corralled many of the same facts that appeared in the original scoop. CNN, for instance, cites its own sources as indicating that agents “crashed a car into a White House barricade following a late-night party for retiring spokesman Ed Donovan and it’s suspected they had been drinking.” It’s possible that these sources were exaggerating the situation; sources do that from time to time.

The whole episode has been referred to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.

Anyone evaluating the incident should do so with caution, given recent history: After news surfaced that a man had jumped the White House fence last year, reports concurred that he was stopped at the mansion’s North Portico. Later we learned that he had penetrated deep into the White House.

*Correction: This post initially reported that The Post had made these allegations, when in fact the newspaper reported that the allegations were under investigation by the Obama administration.