Jewish World Review April 8, 2005/ 28 Adar II, 5765

Wesley Pruden

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Consumer Reports

Not quite a fake, but inaccurate | Even in death, Terri Schiavo continues to make Page One. The partisan debate over euthanasia, and how to sneak it through the back door if necessary, spills over into newspaper "ethics" (do not laugh).

After Mike Allen of The Washington Post, who aspires to be the chief flea in Republican skivvies, reported that Republican leaders in the Senate had distributed a "talking points memo" to help them make the argument that Mrs. Schiavo shouldn't be starved to death, Capitol Hill buzzed with Democratic accusations that the Republicans had turned a humanitarian debate into a cynical partisan enterprise. The buzz grew louder with Republican outrage at the coverage in The Washington Post and ABC News.

This will strike most newspaper readers and television-news watchers, who have their own lives to live, as a lot of clamor and clatter over not very much, but the controversy provides an insight into how the Washington sausage grinder works in generating the acute indigestion that is the peculiar "Washington disease." (Not as lethal as "the French disease," but often no less embarrassing to those who get caught with it.)

The Post's news service sent Mr. Allen's original dispatch for his newspaper flying into client newsrooms across the country with the assertion that "Republican leaders" distributed the Schiavo talking points memo to "Republican senators," calling it "a great political issue ...." The wire services dutifully picked up The Post's characterization and sent it to hundreds of other newspapers.

Screams of bias and distortion were raised immediately, the Republicans joined by Internet "bloggers," and the din grew loud enough that even Howard Kurtz, The Post's media reporter, interviewed Mike Allen about what he knew, when did he know it, and what did he write about it. Mr. Allen told Howie that he "did not call them talking points or a Republican memo." But in fact he had. His inaccurate characterization appeared in newspapers in cities as distant as Seattle, where it could inflict political damage, and London, where it couldn't.

The clamor intensified, and this week Brian DeBose, Steve Dinan and their congressional reporting colleagues for this newspaper, being brighter and bolder, did what it apparently had not occurred to The Post or ABC News or other "mainstream" news agencies to do. Our worthies polled every Republican senator, asking bluntly: "Have you seen, produced or distributed such a memo?"

To a man and woman, the 55 Republican senators said no to all three questions. This was no surprise, but we knew this would smoke out the facts, which had been submerged for a week in the usual cesspool reeking of media bias and distortion. That's exactly what happened.

Mike Allen's scoop turned out not to be a fake, like Dan Rather's infamous scoop about George W. Bush, but wrong-headed and misleading. "Non-fake but inaccurate!" wrote superblogger Mickey Kaus, accurately (

The culprit turned out to be Sen. Mel Martinez, the freshman Republican from Florida, who was a Senate point man in the effort to get a little food and water to the dying Terri Schiavo. But Mr. Martinez is anything but "a Republican leader." (Note to Mike Allen: freshmen, as any senator or congressional reporter could tell you, do not lead.) The Philadelphia Inquirer identified two other Senate point men (a crowded point, which by definition can only accommodate one man) as Bill Frist of Tennessee, an authentic leader, and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Unable to deal with the smoke supplied by this newspaper's account, Mr. Martinez owned up with a cough and a splutter. He was the man who gave a copy of a memo prepared by Brian Darling, a lawyer on his staff, to Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who was sympathetic to the campaign to let Terri die on G-d's schedule. The senator fired the aide, the solution always a favorite on the Hill.

Mr. Martinez, who was secretary of housing and urban development in George W.'s first term, explained that he gave the memo to Sen. Harkin "inadvertently" in a sheaf of other papers and it never occurred to him that such talking points could have passed through his office. "I just took it for granted that we couldn't be that stupid." (Hmmmmmm.)

You might wonder why talking up a good political issue in a democratic forum is such a naughty idea. If you do, you have a lot of company. Complicating simple things is what we do best in Washington, which is why the rest of the country is so rightly contemptuous of us.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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