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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Biden 'terrorist' story: How it came together

By: Martin Kady II
August 17, 2011 04:38 PM EDT
Vice President Joe Biden’s comparison of tea party negotiators to terrorists during the
debt-limit crisis is still causing headaches for the White House — and on the
campaign trail — more than two weeks after POLITICO reported Biden’s
comments from a closed-door Democratic meeting in the Capitol.

President Barack Obama on Monday stood by the vice president’s denial,

and then on Wednesday morning The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler in
his Fact Checker column took a shot at POLITICO’s reporting, saying he was
“dubious” that Biden actually made such remarks.

For the record, POLITICO stands by the story and has done so since the

moment it was posted on our website. Furthermore, the vice president’s
office has never asked for a correction or retraction despite follow-up
denials by Biden himself.

Setting aside the idea that it’s virtually impossible for one media organization

to fact-check another media outlet’s reporting on what a public official said
behind closed doors when there’s no known recording or transcript, we
thought it would be fair to pull back the curtain on our reporting process
and explain how the story came together.

Like many stories, it started with a tip from a source who was inside the

tense Aug. 1 Democratic meeting with Biden as the debt negotiations reached
a critical point. This is how much of the reporting works on Capitol Hill —
reporters stand outside closed conference rooms, emailing people inside
those meetings while waiting to buttonhole lawmakers as they leave. The best
reporters have sources who reveal what goes on in these meetings, and we
protect these sources.

After hearing from the first source, the two POLITICO reporters on the story,

Jonathan Allen and John Bresnahan, quickly confirmed Biden’s words with
three other sources who were in the same room. They also contacted a fifth
source, who confirmed the basic reporting. The original tip came in at about
1 p.m. Aug. 1, and POLITICO spent the next few hours in contact with the vice
president’s office, which was aware of what the story was going to say and
had been given several hours to respond by the time the story posted at 4 p.m.

“We sought a response from the vice president’s office and after our interaction

with Biden’s office, we were confident our story was accurate,” Allen said.

The original story was also clear about the context of Biden’s remarks, noting

that he was responding to someone else. According to our reporting,
Rep.Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said “we have negotiated with terrorists,” and the story
quotes Biden agreeing, saying: “They have acted like terrorists.”

To be clear, the quotes came to POLITICO from sources both in real time from

the meeting and immediately after the meeting, so the comments were fresh
from the sources involved.

Shortly after the story published, Biden spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff offered
this quote, which was far from a denial: “The word [terrorist] was used by several
members of Congress. The vice president does not believe it’s an appropriate
term in political discourse.”

Nobody in House Democratic leadership — which sponsored the Biden meeting

— has challenged the accuracy of the story.

All told, this was exactly what makes a great Washington scoop: It was an

exclusive report that drove the political conversation — and continues to do so
— on a major issue. The fact that we’re still talking about it, Obama is still being
asked about it and The Washington Post is still fact-checking this 16 days later
shows the story still has legs.
That gets us back to the fact-checking aspect of this. Kessler writes today:

“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.”

The last phrase is a definite tweak at POLITICO’s reporting on this — and

that’s fine, we can take it. But to reiterate, some of the best reporting in
Washington — from POLITICO, The Post, The New York Times and others —
has often been constructed based on recollections of people in closed-door
settings who have access to the most powerful people in the world.

The Washington Post’s media blogger Erik Wemple summed it up nicely in

his own takeout on this story two weeks ago:

“Is this a classic Washington mystery? Nah. Until the vice president’s office

delivers a scrutiny-withstanding denial, the ‘terrorists’ story appears fair game for recirculation.”

Martin Kady II is congressional editor for POLITICO and

edited the story in question.