Last Friday, March 19, Politico's Chris Frates and the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder posted, on their respective sites, a document purporting to be a Democratic memo outlining the party's plans to change Medicare after the passage of the health care bill. The day's Drudge Report deemed Politico's piece worthy of a link.
But the inside-politics story didn't hold up. That same day, both sites retreated from their scooplets after Democrats questioned the authenticity of the memo. (See the Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, and Newsweek coverage.) At Politico, Frates posted a brief item saying the site was removing "the memo and the details about it until we can absolutely verify the document's origin," and later in the day, the site ran a more expansive piece about the publish-unpublish incident by Craig Gordon, its White House editor. Over at the Atlantic, Ambinder went all mea culpa, writing that he hadn't done proper "due diligence" on the memo, namely checking, before posting it "too quickly."
Was the document a hoax? Did the sites commit journalistic malpractice? Should somebody be dragged out of his or her office to be shot and hanged?
Not to let Politico and the Atlanticoff lightly, but show me a journalist who has never published something he later regretted, and I'll show you a piker or a liar. The conscientious journalist—no matter whether he does his work on the Web, in print, or via broadcasting—goes to sleep every night with the dread, boiling in his belly, that he didn't check this thing or that thing closely enough before he filed his story.
Both Politico Editor-in-Chief John F. Harris and Ambinder told me today that they can't prove that the document, which Republican sources provided to both outlets, is a fake. This leaves the story in a kind of evidentiary limbo, because nobody can prove that it's authentic, either.
Whether the memo was a hoax perpetrated by wascally Wepublicans to prank Democrats, or a stunt by Democrats to embarrass Republicans, or a draft document that prematurely escaped its incubator (as Politico's Gordon speculates in his piece), or some other scenario, neither site is very happy about having published it. Like Ambinder, Politico reporter Frates did not check the document with Democrats before publishing. Harris says that if time travel were possible, he'd go back and do things differently.
Although pranksters have long hoaxed journalists, evolving technology keeps providing them with new tools to stage ever-more-elaborate scams. In the old days, a prankster had to steal letterhead to create a cheap counterfeit document. Now he can gin up fake letterhead with a laser printer and desktop software. The con man who once fooled a reporter by imitating the voice of a known source over the telephone can now imitate the genuine source's caller ID or e-mail address to accomplish similar ends. But the defensive tools have evolved, too, making it easier for journalists to differentiate the wooden nickels from the real ones. In the end, the prankster vs. journalist arms race is probably a wash.
Neither Harris nor Ambinder tender anything like a "the Web made me do it" defense, and both are ready to take their knocks for publishing a shaky story. Ambinder is directly apologetic, giving this answer to the question of what he'll do differently in the future: "I will do what I should have done." Harris, on the other hand, is more oblique, saying Politico "could have made it clear that this was information in progress" rather than nailed-down fact.
Both Politico and Ambinder have promised readers they'll dig deeper to determine the memo's provenance. Rather than judging them by last week's miscues or by the dimensions of their apologies, I'd rather judge them by their future efforts to get to the bottom of the mystery. If the memo was important enough for either organization to rush into publication, then its provenance must be worth pursuing, too, right?
The "Web made me do it" defense really annoys me. However colossal journalistic competition may be in today's D.C., it couldn't be more cutthroat than in the 1920s, when at least five Washington newspapers (the Post, the Star, the Times, the Herald, and the Daily News) published multiple daily editions. Did anybody ever say, "The early edition made me do it"? Oh, probably. Send early and late editions of your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org and listen to mine via Twitter. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)