Among the most precious resources reporters have are their sources. Without “reliable sources,” we end up rewriting press releases and transcribing notes from banal – and usually self-serving – interviews. Our stories would rarely be worth reading. But our research shouldn’t end with a source’s tip; that’s where our research should start.
Responsible reporters try to confirm the tips they get before rushing into print or onto the TV set. At least, that’s what they did in my day. Now, not so much.
Take the sad story of ABC’s Benghazi “scoop.”
ABC’s Jonathan Karl (above) got hold of information about a series of emails discussing the tragic Benghazi attack in September. The information seemed to show that the White House had removed references to terrorism from “talking points” on the attack. (The “talking points” were reiterated on TV by UN Ambassador Susan Rice and torpedoed her chances of being Secretary of State – remember?)
In Karl’s place, I would have tried to make sure the tip was accurate before passing it on to the public. But in his euphoria over the “scoop,” Karl not only took his source’s word concerning the content of the emails but also acted as if he had read them himself.
But he hadn’t read the emails. And the summaries he was given turned out to be doctored.
Among the emails Karl “quoted” was one by Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes that seemed to implicate the White House in a “cover up.”
Here’s the “damning” passage:
We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation. We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.
As all the world could see when the White House later released the Benghazi emails, the Rhodes message did not mention the State Department. Here’s what the real email said:
Sorry to be late to this discussion. We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation. There is a ton of wrong information getting out into the public domain from Congress and people who are not particularly informed. Insofar as we have firmed up assessments that don’t compromise intel or the investigation, we need to have the capability to correct the record, as there are significant policy and messaging ramifications that would flow from a hardened mis-impression. We can take this up tomorrow morning at deputies.
As Karl admitted later, he didn’t have the emails in hand, after all; he was quoting from notes his source had made while reading them. And – as sources often do – Karl’s source obviously had an ax to grind.
Karl was not the only reporter to spread the “spin” added to Rhodes’ email. Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard was taken in, too.
If you watch TV or read the newspapers, you must have heard about the Benghazi “scandal.” Republicans in Congress have been screaming their heads off in an attempt to implicate President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a “cover up.” And the media have been only too willing to chase after the canard.
Without a shred of evidence to implicate the president or Ms. Clinton, the pundits have reveled in this “scandal,” fueled by “spin” masters like ABC’s source. Now that the emails have been made public – and minutely scrutinized – I can only hope that we’ve heard the last of the Great Benghazi Scandal. It’s time to move on to some other concocted “outrage” supposedly committed by the most unfairly maligned president in America’s history.