[With four updates below: May 19, 20, 22.]
I am going to be brief here because for anyone closely following the story of the Benghazi talking points these facts are well known. And if you’re not following the story closely, you probably don’t care. If you do care, but aren’t following it, just click the links below and you can get caught up.
1. On May 10th ABC’s Jonathan Karl reported a source’s description of a White House advisor’s email about the Benghazi talking points:
“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.”
2. That turned out to be misleading and inaccurate, as revealed initially by CNN’s Jake Tapper and later confirmed by the release of all the emails in question. Karl’s source, said Tapper, “seemingly invented the notion that Rhodes wanted the concerns of the State Department specifically addressed.” Tapper had obtained the text of the email in question. It simply didn’t say what Karl said it said on one key point. Karl, it appeared, was relying on a source’s quotation.
3. Tapper is a former colleague of Karl’s at ABC News, and a former guest host of ABC’s This Week, a duty Karl also takes on from time to time. The two men are in the same business. Both have covered the White House for ABC. If one says the other’s source “invented” evidence that was passed along to ABC’s audience, that is a serious matter.
4. Karl responded to Tapper’s report by obfuscating without backing off, and claiming that the release of the full email chain would clear this up. So how about it, White House? ABC News also doubled down. It’s spokesperson told Erik Wemple of the Washington Post that Tapper’s report was consistent with Karl’s.
5. The White House said Karl’s source had “fabricated” the email in question. Here, the Obama Administration was warning ABC News that Jon Karl got played. Again, a serious matter. Also: news.
6. Karl’s colleagues weren’t buying his defense, as can be seen from this post by NPR’s Scott Neuman and Mark Memmott. They were bothered, as well, by the way Karl created confusion about whether he had obtained the email in question or just heard its contents described by a source. This too counts as a serious matter.
7. Later, when the full email chain was released, the news was bad for Karl. The originals show that Karl’s source was wrong about the White House protecting the State Department’s concerns over other agencies. Jon Karl had called for this evidence to be released. It was released. The results only cast more doubt on his defense of the original story, and strongly suggested he had been played.
8. Yesterday, Taking Points Memo reported that members of Congress and their staffs were briefed on the emails and their contents. That’s how Karl’s source knew about them.
The ABC report was based on notes taken by a still-unnamed source, presumably a Republican, in attendance at one of two briefings the administration held for members and senior staffers of the Senate and House intelligence committees and top leadership offices in February and March of this year. The ABC report contained a great deal of the information the White House would ultimately reveal itself this week when it released all of the inter- and intra-agency email communication that ultimately resulted in the talking points Susan Rice used in a now-infamous series of appearances on network news shows on the Sunday after the attack.
But it got one big part about the White House’s role wrong…
Again: serious business.
9. I had been following all this and last night I said on Twitter: “Jon Karl got played. But he refuses to admit it. Every ABC anchor who doesn’t ask him about it is complicit, too.” I was anticipating Karl’s appearance on ABC’s signature political program, This Week with George Stephanopoulos. He had appeared on May 12th, two days after his original report, to talk about Benghazi with guest host Martha Raddatz. There had been big news in the intervening week: the release of the original emails. I figured that ABC News would have him on again, if they believed so strongly in his original report. He is, after all, ABC’s Chief White House Correspondent; the story that dominated Washington all week was the re-emergence of a scandal narrative. A typical headline: Obama Pivots to Jobs Tour at End of Scandal Filled Week. (That’s from The Note, the politics blog at ABCNews.com, to which Karl is a major contributor.) Well, here’s the line-up for This Week with George Stephanopoulos. No Jon Karl. Instead, ABC News Senior Washington Correspondent Jeff Zeleny.
10. When a confidential source burns a reporter, a reporter is within his rights to burn–that is, “out”–that source. But it almost never happens because reporters are concerned that potential sources will take it as a sign that the reporter cannot be trusted to keep their names secret. That’s bad enough. But this is worse. Karl had a chance to limit the damage to ABC News from his faulty reporting when he first responded to Jake Tapper’s report. He blew that. Inexplicably, an ABC News spokesperson then doubled down on Karl’s original reporting: strike two. They had a chance to recover by asking Karl to explain how he got misled on This Week. They blew that when they chickened out and asked Jeff Zeleny to appear instead.
11. None of the major networks–ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN–has an ombudsman. This is mystifying to me. They don’t seem to realize that since the rise of the Internet, their reporting is called into question far more easily and far more effectively. This case was especially likely to blow-up in ABC’s face once Jake Tapper’s report appeared online. When one reporter pisses on another reporter’s scoop, the first reporter enters a danger zone. The overwhelming temptation is to defend the story and treat the critique of it by another reporter as professional jealousy. A wise editor would intervene. (Attention: Rick Klein.) That did not happen. When the newsroom hierarchy fails, as it did here, the ombudsman can step in and force an accounting. But there is no ombudsman at ABC.
Jon Karl has dragged the entire news division at ABC (and now George Stephanopoulos) into his self-dug pit. He got played. His colleagues at other news organizations know it. His friends at the network, were they real friends, would try to talk him out of this disastrous state of denial.
Update, May 19. Today, Jonathan Karl, feeling the heat from peers, decided to make a statement to Howard Kurtz of CNN, who read it on the air. The statement says:
Clearly, I regret the email was quoted incorrectly and I regret that it’s become a distraction from the story, which still entirely stands. I should have been clearer about the attribution. We updated our story immediately.
In the statement he did not apologize. On Twitter he did— for failing to make clear that his reporting was based on a summary provided by a source. My favorite part of his statement is: “Clearly, I regret…” That’s exactly what he and ABC News, through its spokesperson, were refusing to be clear about!
Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report, which tracks television news, sends this:
On Thursday’s CBS Evening News, Major Garrett spelled out how Jonathan Karl’s Republican source had misrepresented the content of the e-mails in his Exclusive on the previous Friday. But Garrett did not mention Karl by name as the one who disseminated the falsity.
On Wednesday, when Karl covered the publication of the actual e-mails by the White House on ABC World News, he resorted to a post hoc, propter hoc sleight of hand to suggest that they vindicated his previous reporting. Garrett, also on Wednesday, reported the opposite: that the relationship between the State Department’s comments and the CIA’s wording changes were coincidental, not causative.
Per Garrett, the CIA redacted its talking points in response to the FBI’s need not to compromise its investigation, not in response to the State Department’s need to avoid Congressional criticism.
Update II, May 19: After thinking about it some more, here’s the problem for ABC:
If a reporter for your network tells the public he has “exclusively” obtained evidence he has not in fact obtained, causing other reporters for the network to repeat that untruth, and part of his report turns out to be wrong, in a way that a.) is politically consequential and b.) would have been avoided if the evidence was actually in the reporter’s possession… what is the proper penalty?
ABC’s current position: The reporter has to say that he regrets the misreport, and apologize for not being clearer, while benefitting from the confusion he created across multiple reports by sometimes being accurate (that he had summaries of emails read to him) and sometimes misleading us with the claim that he had “obtained” the originals. (Link.)
Can that stand? We will see this week, I guess.
Update III, May 20: Looks like we have our answer. There is now an editor’s note attached to the original “exclusive” by Karl. It reads:
Editor’s Note: There were differences between ABC News’ original reporting on an email by Ben Rhodes, below, and the actual wording of that email which have now been corrected. ABC News should have been more precise in its sourcing of those quotes, attributing them to handwritten copies of the emails taken by a Congressional source. We regret that error. The remainder of the report stands as accurate.
I would have retracted the report, both the online and and on air versions. Not only because of the sourcing problems. The entire story seeks to make a scandal out of the fact that that the talking points were edited, or as Karl says on air “dramatically edited!” But how else do you get inter-agency agreement on what to say? Karl says on the air that many of the changes were “directed” by the State Department, but State didn’t have the power to direct anything. With the editor’s note and Karl’s updates attempting to rescue his “exclusive,” the thing is now a mess. All to avoid confessing error and protect a misbegotten scoop.
Academic opinion as surveyed by Salon is strongly against Karl and ABC for flunking the basics of transparency.
Here’s NPR’s report, quoting this one.
The Washington Post fact checker takes on this episode, in particular the White House’s claim that Karl’s Republican sources must have fabricated and “doctored” the emails they talked about with him. He is not impressed with this claim, awarding it Three Pinocchios (significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.) “We see little evidence that much was at play here besides imprecise wordsmithing or editing errors by journalists.”
Update IV, May 22: It is in the nature of these disputes that they get more granular as they go on. Andrew Tyndall, who monitors TV News at the Tyndall Report, has been thinking it through. He sends me an after-action report that I am publishing here. Tyndall effectively isolates the layer of Jon Karl’s report that was, yes, a genuine scoop but also an important part of the story, if you really want to know what happened with the Benghazi talking points: The precise steps through which interagency drafting weakened the text into something opaque and, eventually, deceptive and wrong. That additional detail advances the story, as the Weekly Standard’s earlier reports did. No doubt this is why Karl and ABC are insisting their story “stands.”
But as Tyndall says, Karl’s report also tried to explain these changes–it went into the who and the why–by vaguely suggesting that the White House rep and the State Department rep directed them to be made, or somehow controlled the process. He wants to establish a kind of authorship or custody by State and the White House because he is aiming at another prize, beyond his “precise steps” scoop: catching Jay Carney in a lie or bald misstatement of fact.
The statement he was aiming at was the closer for his Good Morning America report on May 10. “They [the White House] initially said only one word had been changed.” He’s trying to show us that together, State and the White House changed a lot of words. Karl wanted to go beyond his exclusive. He wanted a scoop and a nailed lie too. But he mis-nailed it by getting a bum quote, and by failing to establish the undue authorship claim.
With that in mind, read Andrew Tyndall’s take:
The essence of Jonathan Karl’s scoop in the Benghazi Consulate story on ABC on May 10th, was his exclusive revelation that the talking points prepared for members of the Intelligence Committee by the CIA (the ones that also guided Ambassador Susan Rice on those Sunday morning shows) had gone through a series of 12 drafts, each one more vague and less informative, with the end result that their imprecision turned out to be deceptive. Specifically, the decisions not to redact the point about the anti-blasphemy protests, but to redact the point about the al-Qaeda-connected Ansar al-Sharia militia, amounted to misleading the public.
It is that process of deception-by-redaction that Karl has defended as the central point of his exclusive, and has led him to stand by it. Karl never actually uses the term “deceit” but his implication is clear.
There are two subsidiary elements to the story, which Karl either stated or implied, that do not contradict his deception-by-redaction thesis, yet do cast it in a different light. First, who made the changes? Second, what was the motive for the changes?
1. Who made the changes? Karl’s exclusive on May 10th asserted that either the White House or the State Department made at least some of the changes. The story leads with Jay Carney’s claim that those two institutions only changed one word, a claim that Karl contradicts. He later, on May 15th, reported that the final changes were made by the CIA. He remains silent about which of the intermediary changes were made by the White House or by State instead, yet he stands by his premise that some of them were.
2. What was the motive for the changes? In his exclusive report, Karl focuses on the State Department, with its concerns not to open itself to criticism from members of Congress, as the motivator for the redactions. Subsequently a memo has surfaced, written by Ben Rhodes at the White House, that casts doubt on the State Department’s influence over the CIA. First, Rhodes never singles out State’s concerns; second, he does single out the FBI’s concerns that its investigation should not be compromised, as is standard procedure.
The fact that Karl’s reporting relied on an incorrect paraphrase of Rhodes’ memo, which inaccurately did spell out State’s particular concerns, makes Karl’s decision to point to State as the motivator less convincing. In Karl’s defense, he did not report on World News, either on the 10th or the 15th, that the changes were made to the talking points because of State’s input; only that they were made after State’s input. This distinction between “after” and “because of” is never spelled out for viewers.
On the other hand, as said, he did report that some of the intermediary changes were in fact made by either State or the White House, and earlier on the 10th, on Good Morning America, he quoted from an e-mail (again, one he had not seen but had been read to him) that the CIA changed some words after being “directed” to do so by State (later that day on World News, Karl made no stronger claim than “input” from State).
So, Karl’s scoop about the fact of the changes in the talking points was a genuine one. His reporting on who made the changes and why they were made is vague or shifting or absent.