Politico’s Lame Excuse for Posting Unverified Memo

Screen shot 2010-03-20 at 10.20.40 AM.pngPolitico, the website devoted to all things political, almost certainly got pwned by scam artists Friday when it posted an unverified memo — a probable hoax — about health care. It’s an embarrassment for journalists who fall for fakery, but these kinds of things do happen.

What doesn’t usually happen is how Politico dealt with its inadequate journalism. And the case brought back memories of another, more significant mess: the “Rathergate” affair of 2004; more on that below.

It’s obvious, if you read the non mea culpa posted by Political’s White House editor, Craig Gordon, that his organization didn’t check the memo’s authenticity before putting it online, and only pulled it down after Democrats complained. But instead simply apologizing forthrightly, he basically said a) Politico now couldn’t verify anything about the memo’s authenticity; b) but it seemed real (as if that’s an excuse; c) and besides, the Democrats were probably doing what the memo said they were doing anyway.

Then comes his conclusion, a howler for a journalist:

“In the end, POLITICO followed an old rule-of-thumb in journalism in taking down the memo: when in doubt, leave it out. By day’s end, it was still impossible to tell exactly what’s the real story behind the memo. But in the next few months, when Democrats try to pass a multi-billion-dollar ‘doc fix,’ maybe that will shed a little light on the Democrats’ real intentions.”

Except that “leave it out” is not synonymous with “publish it and then take it down if we learn later that we can’t verify its authenticity” — or is this the news standard for news organizations boasting a co-founder who serves on the Pulitzer Prize governing board?

The standard Politico has applied here, is, of course, “truthiness”: Because they want it to be true, it’s close enough.

To be more fair to Politico than the publication may deserve, the memo seemed to many others like something some Democratic aide, somewhere in Washington, might have written, perhaps as a draft. This helps explain why so many journalists took the bait and became part of the vast spin machine that so defines our nation’s political press.

As Talking Points Memo’s Christina Bellantoni reports, the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder had the honor to apologize for posting without checking. The Hill, a publication with apparently more traditional principles, got the memo but decided not to run it at all.

Remember, just a few years ago the journalism and political worlds went appropriately berserk when CBS’ 60 Minutes II team ran a story about George W. Bush’s “service” in the Air National Guard. The report was based, in part on memoranda that CBS not only couldn’t prove were authentic but which were at best highly questionable as to their authenticity. The journalism was awful; CBS and its people took a deserved hit to their reputations. Sadly — and I use that word partly because the journalists involved had long and outstanding records for doing great work — the people who made the mistakes held fast to the notion that they’d done nothing wrong.

It’s obvious, based on the verifiable record, that Bush got strings pulled to avoid Vietnam service and then all but ducked out on his duty. And it may turn out that some Democrat’s fingerprints are on the health care memo. In both cases, the journalism was lacking, and the journalists’ response even more so.

Politico is widely considered a new gold standard of political reporting. That worries me.

2 thoughts on “Politico’s Lame Excuse for Posting Unverified Memo”

  1. Whoever planted the Bush memo, it worked. 1. GWB’s military record became a non-issue. 2. Conservatives were delighted at the collateral kill: Rather. Even now, when that episode is mentioned, the discussion is more about Rather than Bush. It shows how important the job of an editor is – check, verify and double-check — up, down and sideways. There’s always deadline pressure and competition, but they must take a back seat to solid verification of information.

  2. I was with you right up until your conclusion:

    “Politico is widely considered a new gold standard of political reporting.”

    Politco is a right-wing funded propaganda rag. Did you already forget about Mike Allen’s transcription of every word stated by former VP Dick Cheney without one iota of effort to fact check or report of the veracity of his claims?

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