"Media Matters"; by Jamison Foser

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

"Media once again run with anonymously sourced allegation of Nixon eavesdropping"

Matt Drudge's Mini-Me

This week, Slate.com's political/gossip blogger Mickey Kaus wrote:

If Media Matters for America had been around in 1973:

"Media once again run with anonymously sourced allegation of Nixon eavesdropping"

In just 21 words, Kaus managed to elevate the topics he speculates wildly about to the level of the most famous case of presidential wrongdoing in U.S. history, and to equate his "reporting" with that of The Washington Post during that scandal.

Kaus conveniently ignored the fact that, unlike journalists who have repeated the allegation that, in 1992, Hillary Rodham Clinton listened to recordings of telephone calls of her husband's political opponents, the Post's Watergate reporting relied on multiple sources. In All the President's Men, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward described the "unwritten rule" that guided their work on the Watergate story: "[U]nless two sources confirmed a charge involving activity likely to be considered criminal, the specific allegation was not used in the paper" (Page 79). And, of course, the Post had plenty of named sources in their Watergate articles, despite Kaus' implication to the contrary.

Mickey Kaus wants you to think the "journalism" he and other reporters have practiced in recent weeks is the same as that conducted by Bernstein and Woodward. It isn't. While the Post reporters relied on multiple sources, named and unnamed, in order to report weighty allegations about contemporaneous (or very recent) incidents, Kaus and others not only reported, but repeated as fact, the claims of a single unnamed source about an alleged 14-year-old incident.

Worse, Kaus and his peers aren't even relying on their own source: They are relying on, and treating as uncontested fact, the purported claims of someone else's source. They do not know the source's identity, nor have they had the opportunity to question the source to determine his or her credibility. Indeed, they have no reason to believe the source even exists, save the word of two reporters who have already been caught making false claims about Clinton and about their own book.

Yet, several news outlets -- ABC, CNN, and MSNBC among them -- not only ran with the story based on nothing more than someone else's single anonymous source, they didn't bother to give their readers or viewers so much as a hint as to the flimsy nature of the allegation.

Kaus led the way with a May 31 post on his Slate blog that quoted from a copy of the then-unreleased Her Way, by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. Though Kaus' post made clear that he had access to the book's endnotes, he didn't bother to mention that those endnotes indicate that the authors based the allegation Kaus was hyping on the claims of a single anonymous source. He did, however, rush to speculate that the alleged incident was illegal (without wasting valuable space on words like "alleged," of course).

Kaus' breathless hyping of the flimsy Gerth/Van Natta allegation is all too typical of his work.

Earlier this month, when the National Enquirer ran an anonymously sourced hit piece claiming John Edwards had an affair with an unnamed woman, Mickey Kaus went into overdrive pushing the smear -- a story even Matt Drudge didn't bite on at first. (Kaus bragged: "This isn't the first time kausfiles hasn't met Drudge's journalistic standards!" At the bottom of his blog, Kaus features a link to the Drudge Report, describing it as "80 % true. Close enough!" The exclamation point suggests that he thinks he is kidding; the content of his own posts suggests that he is not.)

In peddling the Enquirer story, Kaus criticized Edwards' denials of the allegation:

More: Smith also has a too-broad denial from Edwards: "The story is false." (As every press secretary knows, that could logically mean there's nothing to the story; it could mean an affair didn't start "18 months ago" but rather 8 months ago). ...

Update: The AP has Edwards adding "It's completely untrue, ridiculous" and saying the story was "made up." By the Enquirer? Or by one of the people the Enquirer cites? Either way, it's a direct attack on the integrity of someone (not necessarily a smart move for a politician in Edwards' position). ... [emphasis in original]

In consecutive paragraphs, Kaus criticized Edwards for a denial that (supposedly) wasn't definitive enough, then for a denial that was too definitive. That's Kausian journalism in a nutshell: When the victim of the baseless allegations he peddled denied the charges, he claimed the denial wasn't strong enough. Then, it was too strong. One can't help wondering if Kaus cares what the truth is, or whether he traffics in these claims because he simply enjoys the sport of it all.

Not content spreading the Edwards rumor himself, Kaus actually chided other reporters for not joining in the fun, writing: "The MSM seems to be strenuously trying to not report it." When the "mainstream media" and Drudge did pick up the story, Kaus announced that they "finally mention the allegations." (The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder succinctly explained what he convincingly describes as the media's entrapment of Edwards.)

For Mickey Kaus, it isn't enough that he drags a man's reputation through the mud based on nothing more than a supermarket tabloid's quotes of an anonymous source talking about an unnamed woman. No, he apparently wants the rest of the media to do so as well.

Nor is Kaus' descent into gutter journalism a recent development. In 2004, he helped fan the flames of the dubious (and ultimately discredited) "story" that John Kerry had an affair with an intern. When the woman in question responded to the allegations, Kaus criticized her denial (no denial is ever just right for Mickey Kaus) and expressed "hopes" that a "good Kerry sex scandal" would yet emerge:

Why didn't she just deny immediately that she'd had an affair with Kerry? Isn't that what most people would do? She says she "should have asked more clearly for advice" from Kerry aide Stephanie Cutter. But wasn't this a no-brainer? Why didn't Cutter ask her to issue an immediate denial?

[...]

We shook the tree," a reporter for The Hill tells [Alexandra] Polier. "A bunch of names fell out, and yours had the most flesh to it." A bunch of names? Hmmm. Had Polier heard such names? Doe [sic] she think the hopes for a good Kerry sex scandal are completely unfounded? She's remarkably reticent about Kerry's behavior with others. ...

And a stroll through Kausfiles archives from 2004 shows the author relentlessly hyping other anti-Kerry storylines, including the bogus controversy over the senator's service in Vietnam. Among (many) other posts on the topic, Kaus defended Stephen Gardner, one of the liars who swift-boated Kerry.

The fact that Kaus apparently has lower evidentiary standards than Matt Drudge is bad enough. But he doesn't stop there: He chides journalists who don't follow him in his race to the bottom and mocks those who think reporters shouldn't repeat as facts the claims of someone else's single anonymous source.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.