(Associated Press)

Q: “I have a question.”

THE PRESIDENT: “Well, I — hold on a second. I’m looking over at this — sir —

Q: “How will we —


Q: “— come together when your vice president is calling the tea party terrorists?”

— An exchange between President Obama and Iowa Tea Party founder Ryan Rhodes during a town hall in Decorah, Iowa, Aug. 15, 2011

“He just denied it, he said the vice president didn’t make any of those assertions. He just doesn’t want to even admit what was on TV nationally — all over the place — then how can you have a conversation?”

— Rhodes, recounting a private conversation with Obama after the town hall.

This is an interesting journalistic conundrum. When does rumor become reality?

The report that Vice President Biden called tea party activists “terrorists” started with an item in Politico, reporting on a closed-door conversation between Democrats about the debt-ceiling agreement. A somewhat vague denial emerged from the vice president’s office, followed by a more forceful on-the-record denial from the vice president himself.

And yet the story continues to circulate, even though the major print media — such as The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal — never did their own stories confirming Biden’s alleged statement. We were struck by Rhodes’ comment that Biden’s comment was all over national TV, and therefore must be true, so how could the president deny it?

The Fact Checker was on vacation when this erupted, but a reader asked us to look at it again now that the president was confronted with a question about it during his Midwest bus tour.

The Facts

First of all, one reason why a story like this had legs is because it fits into the journalistic narrative of Biden as a gaffe machine. He seems to have a habit of saying inappropriate things at inappropriate moments, and so most journalists would say that if any senior administration official was going to call tea party activists terrorists, it would be Biden.

But let’s look at what we know about the incident.

It was a two-hour closed-door meeting, so there is no transcript. As far as we can tell, none of the lawmakers took notes of the conversation. By all accounts, it was a heated conversation, with liberal lawmakers challenging Biden about what they considered poor negotiating tactics by the White House, resulting in what they thought was a bad debt deal.

So we are left with hearsay evidence. Here’s what Politico reported:

Vice President Joe Biden joined House Democrats in lashing tea party Republicans Monday, accusing them of having “acted like terrorists” in the fight over raising the nation’s debt limit, according to several sources in the room.

Biden was agreeing with a line of argument made by Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) at a two-hour, closed-door Democratic Caucus meeting. “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.”

The report did not quote anyone on the record saying Biden said this. Even the initial report made it clear that Biden was responding to a comment made by someone else, instead of making his own statement.

Yet the response from the vice president’s office was a bit vague: “The word was used by several members of Congress. The vice president does not believe it’s an appropriate term in political discourse.” In journalistic circles, reporters would look askance at such a statement, because it did not forcefully deny that Biden made those remarks.

Biden did better in an interview with the CBS Evening News, saying the report was “absolutely not true.”

Q: But, Mr. Vice President, is there any truth to what we hear that you told some of those Democrats that the tea party Republicans “acted like terrorists”?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Absolutely not true. Absolutely not true.

Q: You didn’t use the terrorism word?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I did not use the terrorism word. What happened was that there were some people who said they felt like they were being held hostage by terrorists. And I never said that they were terrorists or weren’t terrorists. I just let them vent and go on. They’re angry.

One could do a bit of parsing about the rest of this statement — i.e., “did not use the terrorism word” — but the first part certainly sounds like a clear on-the-record denial. Anchor Scott Pelley specifically asked him about the “acted like terrorists” quote and Biden said it was “absolutely not true.”

Virtually every other news report on the alleged incident simply piggy-backed on the Politico report, with little original reporting. The New York Post, for instance, headlined: “Biden: Tea Stands for ‘Terrorist.’”

We did find one on-the-record comment — from Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) — that Biden said this. The TPM Web site reported: “Rep. George Miller and another lawmaker confirmed Biden’s quote to TPM, but both stressed that Biden was simply concurring with what Doyle said.”

But then contrast that with the recollection of Rep. Doyle, who made the original statement about “terrorists.” He told one of his local newspapers that Biden did not say this.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said he wasn’t comparing tea party members with terrorists when he used the word during a closed-door caucus meeting Monday, but was expressing frustration at President Obama’s negotiating tactics, which he said gave in too quickly to GOP demands in the debt-ceiling debate.

“Had I simply said hostage-taker, there wouldn’t be this reaction. I certainly wasn’t out to defame anybody,” said Doyle, who couldn’t recall the exact statement he made. “I wasn’t talking about the tea party. I was talking about the tactic (of) telling us if we don’t go along with this bad deal, they’re going to blow the economy up.”

Doyle denied reports that Vice President Joe Biden, who was addressing the caucus, also used the word terrorist, and Biden’s office said the same.

To us, Doyle’s on-the-record statement trumps Miller’s comment, since Biden was speaking to Doyle. Maybe Biden was merely nodding his head in agreement as Doyle was speaking, and some people interpreted it as agreement. Or maybe not. There were no TV cameras or recording devices inside.

The Pinocchio Test

Given the private nature of the conversation, we obviously cannot come to a definitive ruling on this. But readers should be wary of news reports that report mere gossip as facts.

Frankly, we are dubious that Biden actually said this. And if he did, he was simply echoing what another speaker said, in a private conversation, as opposed to making a public statement.

Contrast Biden’s alleged “acting like terrorists” with this on-the-record comment made by George W. Bush’s former Treasury Secretary, Paul H. O’Neill:

“The people who are threatening not to pass the debt ceiling are our version of al-Qaeda terrorists. Really. They’re really putting our whole society at risk by threatening to round up 50 percent of the members of the Congress, who are loony, who would put our credit at risk.”

If Biden had made a public statement like that, it certainly would have been newsworthy. But secondhand reports about comments made in private — which are then denied by the speaker — should be ignored as unverified tittle-tattle unworthy of public discourse.

On balance, then, we are going to give President Obama a rare Geppetto for his denial that Biden uttered those words. There is no firm evidence to believe Biden did.

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