Media run with unsourced assertion by Sun-Times columnist of "rumbles" that Emanuel "is reportedly on 21 different taped conversations"

››› ››› ANDREW WALZER & TOM ALLISON

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed asserted in a column that she "hears rumbles President-elect Barack Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is reportedly on 21 different taped conversations by the feds -- dealing with his boss' vacant Senate seat!" Sneed added: "A lot of chit-chat? Hot air? Or trouble? To date, Rahm's been mum. Stay tuned." Despite the complete absence of sourcing, many in the media have run with Sneed's assertion, in some cases simply quoting Sneed, in others, paraphrasing the assertion, and in still others, actually expanding on it.

Referring to the scandal surrounding Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), in a December 16 column in on the Chicago Sun-Times website, columnist Michael Sneed wrote: "Sneed hears rumbles President-elect Barack Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is reportedly on 21 different taped conversations by the feds -- dealing with his boss' vacant Senate seat!" In her column, in which she cited no support for the assertion or gave any indication of the source to whom she was referring in using the word "reportedly," Sneed added: "A lot of chit-chat? Hot air? Or trouble? To date, Rahm's been mum. Stay tuned." Although Sneed has since written about Emanuel in the context of the scandal, she has not again written about the "reported[]" claim that Emanuel is "on 21 different taped conversations by the feds." Nor has Sneed since provided a source for the "rumbles" or identifying who had done the "report[ing]."

Following Sneed's column, the Sun-Times reported in a December 18 article that Emanuel "had a deeper involvement in pressing for a U.S. Senate seat appointment than previously reported" and that "Emanuel had direct discussions about the seat with Gov. Blagojevich, who is ... accused of trying to auction it to the highest bidder." The Sun-Times further reported, "At least some of the conversations between Emanuel and Blagojevich were likely caught on tape, sources said." But in the article, the Sun-Times made no mention of "21 different taped conversations."

The office of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has not commented on Sneed's claim and reportedly requested that Obama "delay the release of a report" about an internal review of the contacts between Obama's aides and the Illinois governor's office. In a memo written by Greg Craig, who will be White House counsel, the Obama transition team reported the results of its internal review of "Transition Staff Contacts with the Governor's Office." According to the memo, Emanuel in fact "had one or two telephone calls with Governor Blagojevich" and "about four telephone conversations with John Harris, Chief of Staff to the Governor."

Despite the complete absence of sourcing -- Sneed wrote that she "hears rumbles" that Emanuel "is reportedly on 21 different taped conversations" -- many in the media ran with the assertion, in some cases simply quoting Sneed, in others, paraphrasing the assertion, and in still others, actually expanding on it.

December 16

On December 16, the day Sneed's column was published and posted online, blogs affiliated with the National Review Online, the Politico, and The Weekly Standard linked to Sneed's column and cited her claim that Emanuel "is reportedly on 21 different taped conversations by the feds -- dealing with his boss' vacant Senate seat." None noted the complete absence of sourcing by Sneed:

  • In a 1:03 p.m. post on the National Review Online blog The Corner, headlined "O Call, O Call Emanuel," contributor Mark Steyn wrote: "The Blago business already seems to be fading. After all, it's not like that GOP congressman from Florida getting caught in a non-sex scandal, is it? Still, this item from The Chicago Sun-Times is intriguing." Steyn then quoted from Sneed's column.
  • At 2:45 p.m., Politico senior political writer Ben Smith linked to Sneed's column and wrote: "The well-wired (possibly in more ways than one) Michael Sneed reports that Rahm appears on '21 different taped conversations' regarding Obama's vacant seat. He also had a vacant congressional seat in play."
  • In a 7:00 p.m. post on The Weekly Standard blog, contributor John McCormack included a link to Sneed's assertion in a list of "Happy Hour Links." His link to Sneed's column read: "Rahm Emanuel is 'reportedly on 21 different taped conversations by the feds -- dealing with his boss' vacant Senate seat.'"

By 8:35 p.m. that day, The Drudge Report featured a link to Sneed's column with the headline, "Paper: Rahm On Tape Talking Senate Seat; 21 Conversations..."

Later that evening, during an interview with Steyn on the December 16 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, co-host Sean Hannity referenced Sneed's assertion without noting her failure to source it. Hannity said: "Now we're discovering -- the Chicago Sun-Times -- he's on tape 21 times. Twen -- now, we don't know what he's saying." Hannity added that that was a "far cry from, 'I had no contact from the governor.' And here's his chief of staff 21 times on tape, apparently with a list of approved names by Obama himself." Steyn replied: "Yeah. Any minute now, Barack Obama will be saying, 'Oh, this guy was just the chief of staff in my neighborhood.' Whatever his usual line is. I mean, what we have here is -- the interesting thing about those 21 calls from Rahm Emanuel: Did he at any one point say -- because the governor is cheerfully up front about what he's doing with everything. He wants the money, he wants a cushiony position, he says he needs the money. At any point does Rahm Emanuel ... go, 'Whoa, Governor, you are way out of line'?" From Hannity & Colmes:

HANNITY: Well, Mark, it's mysterious to me. Now we're discovering -- the Chicago Sun-Times -- he's on tape 21 times. Twen -- now, we don't know what he's saying.

STEYN: Right.

HANNITY: But this is a --

STEYN: No.

HANNITY: -- far cry from, "I had no contact from the governor." And here's his chief of staff 21 times on tape, apparently with a list of approved names by Obama himself.

STEYN: Yeah. Any minute now, Barack Obama will be saying, "Oh, this guy was just the chief of staff in my neighborhood." Whatever his usual line is.

I mean, what we have here is -- the interesting thing about those 21 calls from Rahm Emanuel: Did he at any one point say -- because the governor is cheerfully up front about what he's doing with everything. He wants the money, he wants a cushiony position, he says he needs the money. At any point does Rahm Emanuel --

HANNITY: All right.

STEYN: -- go, "Whoa, Governor, you are way out of line"?

HANNITY: Wouldn't it make -- I -- look, there may even be a possibility, and I hold this out, Mark, and for all the liberals watching that say, "Hannity's never fair," maybe now that he's on tape 21 times -- who knows? Maybe he even went to Fitzgerald. We don't know. I hope upon hope --

STEYN: Right.

HANNITY: -- that he did the moral -- he did the right thing. I think he's got two problems here. When he said, "I had no contact" -- in fact, if Rahm Emanuel is handing Blagojevich a list, and there's 21 times he's on these phone conversations.

December 17

On December 17, blogs affiliated with ABC News, The Hill, and Townhall.com linked to Sneed's column and uncritically repeated the assertion that Emanuel "is reportedly on 21 different taped conversations by the feds -- dealing with his boss' vacant Senate seat." None of the blogs noted Sneed's failure to provide a source:

  • At 6:48 a.m., syndicated radio host Hugh Hewitt linked to Sneed's assertion in a Townhall.com blog post and speculated, "If the Chicago Sun Times' Michael Sneed is correct and there are 21 taped conversations between Rahm Emanuel and Rod Blagojevich, the trouble for the incoming WH chief of staff is just beginning." Though Hewitt did not note that Sneed did not provide a source for her claim, he added:

Given Emanuel's deserved reputations for smarts and toughness, it is likely he wasn't approached by Blago on the pay-to-play conspiracy, but the prospect of blunt talk between the congressman and the governor about many subjects and people has to be unsettling to the president-elect and his most important aide.

  • At 8:57 a.m., senior political reporter Rick Klein linked to Sneed's assertion in a blog post on ABC News' The Note. Klein quoted Sneed's assertion verbatim without noting her failure to cite a source. He wrote:

And Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed -- floating a very high number: "Sneed hears rumbles President-elect Barack Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is reportedly on 21 different taped conversations by the feds -- dealing with his boss' vacant Senate seat!"

  • At 10:45 a.m., Walter Alarkon linked to Sneed's assertion in a assertion on The Hill's Blog Briefing Room, without noting that what he called a "report[]" by the Sun-Times was an unsourced blog post by Sneed. Alarkon wrote:

The Chicago Sun-Times this week also reported that Emanuel is caught on tape speaking about Obama's old Senate seat 21 times. Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell that seat for his own benefit

That afternoon, during the 1 p.m. ET hour of MSNBC Live, anchor Andrea Mitchell reported that "The Chicago Sun-Times reports that incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is caught on tape discussing the Senate replacement with governor staff [sic] 21 times," then added that the claim was "a number the Obama transition team says is not accurate."

Later that afternoon, during the 2 p.m. ET hour of MSNBC Live, TownHall.com contributing writer Matt Lewis repeated the assertion without sourcing his claim. After anchor Contessa Brewer asked Lewis if the scandal surrounding Blagojevich is "just red meat for conservatives," Lewis responded: "Yeah, it's the gift that keeps on giving because it's not going away." Later, he asserted, "Rahm Emanuel is on tape 21 times having conversations with Blago." He added: "Now, there may be nothing illegal that comes out, but whether you're a corrupt Chicago politician or not, if you're on tape talking to somebody 21 times, the odds are pretty good that something embarrassing might. Did they say something maybe about [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] that might not play well?"

That evening, during the December 17 edition of the CBS Evening News, correspondent Cynthia Bowers referred to "a reported 21 taped conversations" involving Emanuel without citing a source:

At his press conference today, the president-elect said he's anxious to release details about the issue hanging over his transition team. The report outlining potential contacts between his aides and Governor Blagojevich, including a reported 21 taped conversations with his incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is being held until next week at the request of federal prosecutors.

Later that evening, during the December 17 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, host Lou Dobbs referred to "reports today in Chicago," going beyond the assertions in Sneed's column to refer to a report that Emanuel was "recorded on 21 occasions in conversations with Blagojevich." During the show, correspondent Jessica Yellin said: "Now, when I asked an official about the reports that Rahm Emanuel himself was on tape recorded by the investigators, I was told that transition officials, that doesn't surprise anybody because it's well known that Blagojevich was under investigation and being recorded. They insist that all of this will be an old story by this time next week. It means that all the rest of us have to just wait and see and hold off on any judgments." Dobbs responded:

DOBBS: [I]t may be an old story by next week, but the reports today in Chicago that Rahm Emanuel had been, at least on -- the report goes -- 21 occasions -- recorded on 21 occasions in conversations with Blagojevich. Again, the U.S. attorney has made it clear that Rahm Emanuel is not a target of the investigation. But this is getting, as the saying goes, curiouser and curiouser.

December 18

  • In the 2:45 a.m. New York Post article, "Rahm Heard 21 Times On Blago Wiretaps," Geoff Earle referred to "an explosive report" that Emanuel "got caught on tape 21 times," citing the Sun-Times, but did not note that Sneed provided no support or source for her assertion:

Barack Obama's pick for White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, got caught on tape 21 times during the investigation of disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, according to an explosive report.

The feds have yet to confirm which Obama adviser can be heard on the wiretaps that picked up Blagojevich and his aide in an alleged attempt to hawk Obama's Senate seat, but several signs point to Illinois Rep. Emanuel.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Emanuel showed up on 21 different taped conversations. The paper also said Emanuel gave Blagojevich a list of candidates Obama preferred, along with a timeline for naming a replacement.

  • A 1:26 p.m. post published on ClevelandLeader.com, titled "Rahm Emanuel Reportedly Heard on Blagojevich Wiretap 21 Times," repeated Sneed's assertion and cited it as "a new report" from the Sun-Times:

According to a new report, Barack Obama's choice for White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was caught on tape 21 times during the federal investigation of disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. The feds themselves have thus not confirmed which Obama adviser was overheard on the wiretaps that picked up Blagojevich and his aide in an alleged attempt to sell Obama's senate seat to the highest bidder, however all signs point to Rep. Emanuel.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Emanuel showed up on 21 different taped conversations. They also said that Emanuel gave Blagojevich a list of candidates preferred by Obama, along with a timeline for naming a replacement.

That evening, during the December 18 edition of Hannity & Colmes, Hannity repeated the "21" conversations rumor without attributing it to anyone. He asserted: "We have Rahm Emanuel involved, apparently on tape, according to many as many as 21 times, specifically handing a list of names over acceptable to Barack Obama." Hannity went on to say, "Barack Obama had said I have absolutely had no contact, but meanwhile he sent an emissary to get contact. Is he going to -- is his credibility going to be questioned because of a lack of --."

From the December 16 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

STEYN: I mean, he is -- it's interesting to me, Sean. What it is -- what is the dog that isn't barking here? He doesn't express outrage. He never expresses outrage at the idea that his Senate seat is being sold to the highest bidder by this political colleague of his. It's very mysterious to me.

HANNITY: Well, Mark, it's mysterious to me. Now we're discovering -- the Chicago Sun-Times -- he's on tape 21 times. Twen -- now, we don't know what he's saying.

STEYN: Right.

HANNITY: But this is a --

STEYN: No.

HANNITY: -- far cry from, "I had no contact from the governor." And here's his chief of staff 21 times on tape, apparently with a list of approved names by Obama himself.

STEYN: Yeah. Any minute now, Barack Obama will be saying, "Oh, this guy was just the chief of staff in my neighborhood." Whatever his usual line is.

I mean, what we have here is -- the interesting thing about those 21 calls from Rahm Emanuel: Did he at any one point say -- because the governor is cheerfully up front about what he's doing with everything. He wants the money, he wants a cushiony position, he says he needs the money. At any point does Rahm Emanuel --

HANNITY: All right.

STEYN: -- go, "Whoa, Governor, you are way out of line"?

HANNITY: Wouldn't it make -- I -- look, there may even be a possibility, and I hold this out, Mark, and for all the liberals watching that say, "Hannity's never fair," maybe now that he's on tape 21 times -- who knows? Maybe he even went to Fitzgerald. We don't know. I hope upon hope --

STEYN: Right.

HANNITY: -- that he did the moral -- he did the right things. I think he's got two problems here. When he said, "I had no contact" -- in fact, if Rahm Emanuel is handing Blagojevich a list, and there's 21 times he's on these phone conversations.

From the 1 p.m. ET hour of MSNBC Live on December 17:

MITCHELL: There are also new reports today that could implicate the Obama administration in the scandal, but those are being denied. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is caught on tape discussing the Senate replacement with governor staff 21 times, a number the Obama transition team says is not accurate. And, in fact, as [NBC News'] Chuck Todd pointed out earlier, that number would not be surprising. It would be expected. We've known that Emanuel was on the tapes. The frequency, of course, has been a matter of some controversy.

From the 2 p.m. ET hour of MSNBC Live on December 17:

CONTESSA BREWER (anchor): Matthew, given the fact that the president-elect is deferring a lot of answers until next week, given that there are a lot of questions, given the contact that it appears Rahm Emanuel had with the governor's staffers, do you think that we're going to find out next week there's more to this story from the perspective of the president-elect and his transition team?

MATTHEW SLUTSKY (blogger and online radio host): Well, if you're looking at this politically, you know, it's in Barack Obama and the transitions team best interests to get this out. Now, they want to get this out. They were told by the U.S. attorney to hold it. The timing's unfortunate; it's the holidays next week. But I think what we're going to -- there's a lot of innuendo here. There's a lot of speculation.

But if we look at the facts, if we look at what we already know, which is, Blagojevich himself is on tape saying, "All they want to offer me is appreciation." We have Patrick Fitzgerald saying that Obama and his staff have absolutely nothing to do with this. I don't think we're going to learn anything more than we know, which is that Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and his staff have done nothing wrong in this matter.

BREWER: Can we talk about Jesse Jackson really quickly, because it looks like Jesse Jackson Jr., the congressman, has been feeding, reportedly, information to the investigators about corruption in Illinois for years. Does that change at all what his potential role is here and how people may see him?

SLUTSKY: It may change his role entirely, but as it relates to the transition team, as it relates to President-elect Obama, you know, Jesse Jackson's one of 435 members of Congress. He's from Illinois. But yes, it changes his -- certainly, if he's going to get this seat or not, which, you know, we all know from the last couple weeks that it doesn't look like he will.

BREWER: Matt, is this just red meat for conservatives?

MATT LEWIS (Townhall.com): Yeah, it's the gift that keeps on giving because it's not going away. As long as Blago stays in office, this story continues. I mean, look, he could have just -- even if he just said, "I'm going to resign," as has become sort of the custom lately, just to promise you're going to resign, the story might have gone away. But right now -- or at least temporarily, until the actual tapes came out.

But look, Rahm Emanuel is on tape 21 times having conversations with Blago. Now, there may be nothing illegal that comes out, but whether you're a corrupt Chicago politician or not, if you're on tape talking to somebody 21 times, the odds are pretty good that something embarrassing might. Did they say something maybe about [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] that might not play well?

BREWER: I've got 10 seconds, Matthew, go ahead.

SLUTSKY: Here's this innuendo, though, that I was talking about before. The bottom line is, it's not at all strange for Rahm Emanuel to be reaching out --

BREWER: Right.

SLUTSKY: -- to these people and to be talking to them.

BREWER: That point has been made. We've made that point over and over again today on the air, that on its face value, there's nothing wrong there.

SLUTSKY: Absolutely.

BREWER: Matt and Matthew -- gentlemen, thank you both.

From the December 17 edition of the CBS Evening News:

KATIE COURIC (anchor): Now to another scandal: the "Senate seat for sale" case in Illinois. The state's highest court today refused to remove Governor Rod Blagojevich from office. Meanwhile, the story continues to overshadow Barack Obama's transition to the White House. From Chicago tonight, Cynthia Bowers.

BOWERS [video clip]: At his press conference today, the president-elect said he's anxious to release details about the issue hanging over his transition team. The report outlining potential contacts between his aides and Governor Blagojevich, including a reported 21 taped conversations with his incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is being held until next week at the request of federal prosecutors.

From the December 17 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:

DOBBS: Meanwhile, there are reports the president-elect's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has been caught on tape discussing possible candidates for that vacant Senate seat. The Obama transition team refuses to confirm or to deny those reports. Gary Tuchman has the story from Chicago. Gary, what are the governor and his attorney saying now?

[...]

DOBBS: President-elect Obama today refused to directly answer, at least, any questions about reports his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had contacts with Governor Blagojevich. And those conversations were caught on tape. Jessica Yellin has the story from Chicago on what the president-elect did say today. Jessica.

YELLIN: Hi, Lou. Barack Obama and his team insist that they're stymied in this. They say they would like to say everything they know about the Blagojevich matter. They insist there's really no there there, but they say they can't tell us yet because of the prosecutor's request, and Obama himself says that's frustrating. Let's listen.

OBAMA [video clip]: It's a little bit frustrating. There's been a lot of speculation in the press that I would love to correct immediately. We are abiding by the request of the U.S. attorney's office, but it's not going to be that long. By next week, you guys will have the answers to all your questions.

YELLIN: Now, when I asked an official about the reports that Rahm Emanuel himself was on tape recorded by the investigators, I was told that transition officials -- that doesn't surprise anybody because it's well-known that Blagojevich was under investigation and being recorded. They insist that all of this will be an old story by this time next week. It means that all the rest of us have to just wait and see and hold off on any judgments. Lou.

DOBBS: Yeah, it may be an old story by next week, but the reports today in Chicago that Rahm Emanuel had been, at least on -- the report goes -- 21 occasions -- recorded on 21 occasions in conversations with Blagojevich. Again, the U.S. attorney has made it clear that Rahm Emanuel is not a target of the investigation. But this is getting, as the saying goes, curiouser and curiouser.

You also have information, Jessica, tonight on the president-elect's choice for chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Talk about a timely decision.

From the December 18 edition of Hannity & Colmes:

HANNITY: Let's talk about the political side of this. We have Rahm Emanuel involved, apparently on tape, according to some reports, as many as 21 times, specifically handing a list of names acceptable to Barack Obama. Barack Obama had said, "I have absolutely had no contact," but meanwhile, he sent an emissary to go have contact. Is he going to -- is he going to -- is his credibility going to be questioned because of a lack of --

GIULIANI: I don't think we should presume that. I think that'd be a really unf -- first of all -- although it's difficult in a situation like this with all this information, you've got to even assume or presume that the governor is innocent. But beyond that, even though that's hard with all the evidence that's out there and the language he was using, we've got to give that benefit to Rahm Emanuel and to the president-elect.

COLMES: Hey, Mr. Mayor.

GIULIANI: There's nothing out there -- there's nothing out there that I have seen that suggests they did anything wrong.

COLMES: Welcome back to our show.

GIULIANI: Who knows? Who the heck knows?

HANNITY: We don't know.

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