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Cindy Sheehan, mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, has drawn significant media attention for staging an anti-war protest outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, where she is demanding to meet with the president. On August 8, Internet gossip Matt Drudge posted an item on his website, the Drudge Report, in which he falsely claimed that Sheehan "dramatically changed her account" of a meeting she had with Bush in June 2004; Drudge attempted to back up his false assertion by reproducing Sheehan quotes from a 2004 newspaper article without providing their context. After the story appeared on the Drudge Report, it gained momentum among conservative weblogs and eventually reached Fox News, where it was presented as hard news and in commentaries. Media Matters for America will examine how one false story on an Internet gossip site ended up the focus of prime-time cable news coverage.
Drudge's August 8 item claiming that Sheehan had changed her story used quotes from a June 24, 2004, article in The Reporter of Vacaville, California, where Sheehan lives. The Reporter article described a meeting that Sheehan and 16 other families of soldiers killed in Iraq had with Bush in Fort Lewis, Washington, earlier that month. Sheehan's son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq in April 2004.
Drudge quoted Sheehan seemingly speaking glowingly of Bush: "'I now know [Bush is] sincere about wanting freedom for the Iraqis,' Cindy said after their meeting. 'I know he's sorry and feels some pain for our loss. And I know he's a man of faith,' " and, "For the first time in 11 weeks, they felt whole again. 'That was the gift the president gave us, the gift of happiness, of being together,' Cindy said." Drudge contrasted these quotes to Sheehan's statements on the August 7 edition of CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, in which she said, of the 2004 meeting with Bush: "We wanted to use the time for him to know that he killed an indispensable part of our family and humanity."
Drudge, however, took Sheehan's quotes from The Reporter out of context in falsely claiming a shift in her position. The June 24, 2004, Reporter article also quoted Sheehan expressing her misgivings about Bush and the Iraq war:
"We haven't been happy with the way the war has been handled," Cindy said. "The president has changed his reasons for being over there every time a reason is proven false or an objective reached."
The 10 minutes of face time with the president could have given the family a chance to vent their frustrations or ask Bush some of the difficult questions they have been asking themselves, such as whether Casey's sacrifice would make the world a safer place.
But in the end, the family decided against such talk, deferring to how they believed Casey would have wanted them to act. In addition, Pat noted that Bush wasn't stumping for votes or trying to gain a political edge for the upcoming election.
Moreover, Sheehan was not referring to her meeting with Bush as "the gift the president gave us." She was actually referring to the trip to Seattle, as Reporter staff writer Tom Hall noted in an August 9 article responding to Drudge: "Sheehan also said the trip to Seattle helped connect her family to others that had lost a son or daughter in Iraq. Sheehan said sharing their story with those families was rewarding, as was the time she got to spend with her own family. 'That was the gift the president gave us, the gift of happiness, of being together,' she said in the story. Drudge included that quote in his Monday morning report, but didn't explain that it referred to sharing time with her family, not the president."
Reporter editor Diane Barney also responded to Drudge in an August 9 column, in which she said that Sheehan's positions on Bush and the war have not changed since June 2004. "We don't think there has been a dramatic turnaround. Clearly, Cindy Sheehan's outrage was festering even then," Barney wrote. "In ensuing months, she has grown more focused, more determined, more aggressive. ... We invite readers to revisit the story -- in context -- on our Web site and decide for themselves." An August 8 Editor & Publisher article quoted Barney further clarifying the paper's position: "It's important that readers see the full context of the story, instead of just selected portions. We stand by the story as an accurate reflection of the Sheehan's take on the meeting at the time it was published."
Throughout the day on August 8, Drudge's false story needed little time to spread to conservative weblogs:
- Drudge posted the Sheehan item on August 8 at 10:11 am ET.
- Right-wing pundit Michelle Malkin posted the item on her weblog one hour later, at 11:22 am ET.
- At 12:40 pm ET, the Drudge story appeared on C-Log, the weblog of the conservative news and commentary website Townhall.com.
- At 2:33 pm ET, MooreWatch.com posted the story.
- At 3:23 pm ET, William Quick of DailyPundit.com posted the story.
Fox News then picked up Drudge's distortion of Sheehan's quote. On the "Political Grapevine" segment of the August 8 edition of Special Report with Brit Hume, guest anchor and Fox News chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle highlighted Sheehan's supposed contradiction:
ANGLE: Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq last year, who's now camped outside President Bush's Crawford ranch demanding to see him, said yesterday on CNN that a private meeting with President Bush last year was offensive, insisting, quote, "He acted like it was a party. He came in very jovial, like we should be happy with that. Our son died for the president's misguided policies."
But just after that 2004 meeting, she gave a very different account, telling her local paper, the Vacaville Reporter, quote, "I now know the president is sincere about wanting freedom for the Iraqis. I know he's sorry and feels some pain for our loss. And I know he's a man of faith." She added that President Bush, quote, "gave us the gift of happiness of being together."
By August 9, various journalists and progressive bloggers revealed Drudge's distortion. On Salon.com, journalist Eric Boehlert noted on August 9: "Put in full context, Drudge's claim of a flip-flop is easily dismissed." RawStory.com, a progressive news website, noted that Drudge "grossly took Sheehan out of context."
Nevertheless, Drudge's distortion again popped up on Fox News -- this time on the August 9 edition of The O'Reilly Factor. Host Bill O'Reilly made Sheehan's nonexistent contradictions the focus of his "Talking Points Memo" segment:
O'REILLY: The fascinating saga of Cindy Sheehan. That is the subject of this evening's "Talking Points Memo." Mrs. Sheehan is protesting in Crawford, Texas, trying to convince Americans the Iraq war is wrong and the president should be impeached. She is doing so because her son Casey, an Army specialist, was killed last year in Iraq. No one has the right to intrude on Mrs. Sheehan's grief. That's number one. She's entitled to her opinion on a situation that has deeply affected her. And she's angry at the White House.
Well, here's something very strange. Two months after her son died, Cindy and her husband Patrick did meet with President Bush, as she said. After that meeting, Cindy was quoted by a California newspaper as saying, "I now know [President Bush] is sincere about wanting freedom for the Iraqis. I know he's sorry and feels some pain for our loss." So Mrs. Sheehan has apparently changed her mind about the president.
In an editorial today in The New York Times, it says, "Mr. Bush obviously failed to comfort Ms. Sheehan when he met with her and her family. More important, he has not helped the nation give fallen soldiers like Casey Sheehan the honor they deserve." Well, let's go back to the California article. Cindy Sheehan was quoted as saying, "That was the gift the president gave us, the gift of happiness, of being together." It sounds like comfort to me. What say you, New York Times?
O'Reilly then introduced his guest to comment on Sheehan -- Michelle Malkin, who proclaimed that Sheehan's "story hasn't checked out," to which O'Reilly readily agreed:
MALKIN: I mean, the New York Times editorial board is all too eager to prop her up as some sort of martyr and to buy her line when, clearly, her story hasn't checked out.
O'REILLY: Yes, her story hasn't [sic] changed.
MALKIN: And so I think -- and I think that angle you're emphasizing is absolutely right here, which is the mainstream media just lapping this up and perpetuating myths and inaccuracies when they know it's not the truth.
O'REILLY: Yup. They don't identify -- in the New York Times editorial today, it was obvious they did not say her story has been inconsistent. And they did not pinpoint that she is in bed with the radical left.
On the August 10 edition of his syndicated radio program, The Radio Factor, O'Reilly continued to assert that Sheehan had contradicted herself, stating, "In her first meeting with the president, she was happy with him, and we read you the article that the Vacaville paper -- where she's from in California -- printed."