At Least Six Times The Media Shouldn't Have Trusted Selective Leaks From Congressional Sources

››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI & HANNAH GROCH-BEGLEY

The New York Times was forced to issue two corrections after relying on Capitol Hill anonymous sourcing for its flawed report on emails from former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The Clinton debacle is the latest example of why the media should be careful when relying on leaks from partisan congressional sources -- this is far from the first time journalists who did have been burned.

The Selective Leak About A Non-Existent "Criminal Probe"

Times Issues Two Corrections On Heavily Criticized Story Falsely Claiming Clinton Is Subject Of "Criminal Probe." On July 23, the Times published a story that falsely claimed that two inspectors general had requested a criminal investigation by the Justice Department into Clinton's use of email during her tenure as secretary of state. In reality, the probe was not criminal and was not focused on Clinton personally. The Times, which issued two separate corrections, came under widespread public criticism and was strongly reproached by its public editor. [Media Matters7/27/15]

Times Public Editor: Anonymous Sources For Flawed Story Came From Sources Including On "Capitol Hill." Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote that the story had "developed quickly" after "tips from various sources, including on Capitol Hill." She further noted that her "sense" was that "final confirmation" for the story "came from the same person more than once." [New York Times7/27/15Media Matters7/27/15]

Vox's Jonathan Allen Connects Rep. Trey Gowdy To Spin In Botched Times Story. Vox's Jonathan Allen suggested that House Benghazi Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) knew about the request to the Justice Department regarding Hillary Clinton's email practices "at least a day" before The New York Times published its botched story:

I don't know who the Times's sources are, but I do know this: My reporting suggests that House Benghazi Committee Chair Trey Gowdy was fully aware of the request to the Justice Department at least a day before the Times broke the story. If he or his staff were sources, it should have been incumbent upon the Times to check every detail with multiple unconnected sources. Gowdy's team has been accused of leaking something untrue to a reporter before. [Vox.com, 7/28/15Media Matters7/29/15]

The "Political Attack" Leak About Clinton Emails

In 2015, Politico Mischaracterized Email Based On An Anonymous Source Who Had "Reviewed" The Emails. On June 19, Politico was forced to issue a correction after it was discovered that it had published inaccurate information about emails between Hillary Clinton and Sidney Blumenthal, in one case mischaracterizing the context of an email reply. For the piece, Politico relied on "a source who has reviewed the email exchange." [Media Matters7/6/15]

Benghazi Committee Democrats: Politico Got Spun By Source With Committee Access Who Appeared To Want To "Attack" Clinton. Ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Benghazi Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) wrote a letter charging that Politico had been misled by someone who had access to the committee's documents and who "inaccurately described to the press email exchanges ... in a way that appeared to further a political attack against" Clinton. Cummings described this as "only the latest in a reckless pattern of selective Republican leaks and mischaracterizations of evidence relating to the Benghazi attacks." [Media Matters7/6/15]

The "Handwritten" Leak About The Benghazi Talking Points

In 2013, ABC's Jonathan Karl Inaccurately Quoted A Key "Talking Points" Email. On May 10, 2013, ABC News' chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl reported that the network had "reviewed" emails from administration officials regarding the creation and editing of Obama administration talking points shortly after the 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Karl misleadingly suggested that the emails indicated the White House had tried to deceive the public. [Media Matters12/31/13]

Karl Later Admits: Story Was Based On Misleading "Summaries" Of The Emails. Karl eventually acknowledged that his story was based on "summaries" of the emails and "detailed notes" from a source who he said had misrepresented what the documents said. Four days after Karl's report, CNN's Jake Tapper obtained the actual emails, and detailed how one key email "differs from how sources inaccurately quoted and paraphrased it in previous accounts to different media organizations." [Media Matters12/31/13]

ABC Statement: Sloppy Summaries Came From "Handwritten Copies Of The Emails Taken By A Congressional Source." ABC News issued a statement saying that it "should have been more precise in its sourcing of those quotes, attributing them to handwritten copies of the emails taken by a congressional source. We regret that error." Karl also apologized. [Media Matters5/20/13]

The "Reckless" Leak Of IRS Emails

In 2013, Rep. Darrell Issa Cited Leaked IRS Emails To Baselessly Accuse Agency Officials Of Targeting Conservative Groups. In June 2013, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) cited selectively leaked IRS emails to make the unsubstantiated claim that IRS leadership in Washington, D.C. orchestrated the inappropriate targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. Media outlets repeated the claim even though Issa provided no evidence of the alleged link between IRS officials in Washington and the agency's Cincinnati office. [Media Matters, 6/3/13]

Cummings: Issa's Comments Were "Reckless" And "Inconsistent With The Findings Of The Inspector General." Cummings responded to Issa's allegation by saying he had provided no evidence to back up his claim that IRS officials in Washington were complicit in a targeting scheme.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, issued the following statement regarding Chairman Issa's claim on national television this morning that interviews with workers in the IRS Cincinnati office show targeting of conservative groups was a problem that was coordinated out of Washington headquarters:

"So far, no witnesses who have appeared before the Committee have identified any IRS official in Washington DC who directed employees in Cincinnati to use 'tea party' or similar terms to screen applicants for extra scrutiny.  Chairman Issa's reckless statements today are inconsistent with the findings of the Inspector General, who spent more than a year conducting his investigation.  Rather than lobbing unsubstantiated conclusions on national television for political reasons, we need to work in a bipartisan way to follow the facts where they lead and ensure that the IG's recommendations are fully implemented. We must have a sincere effort to uncover the truth so that we can restore the public's trust in the IRS." [Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, 6/2/13]

The Inaccurate Leaking About HealthCare.gov Warnings

In 2013, Issa Selectively Leaked Transcripts To Claim Obama Administration Ignored HealthCare.gov Warnings. On November 11, 2013, CBS News cited partial transcripts leaked by Issa from a closed-door hearing of the House Oversight Committee in its story about problems with the federal health care website. CBS reported that "the project manager in charge of building the federal health care website was apparently kept in the dark about serious failures in the website's security." [Media Matters, 11/13/13]

Report Based On Selective Leak Wasn't Accurate. As MSNBC.com's Steve Benen noted, the leak forwarded suspect information:

The CBS report sounds troubling, right? Probably, at least until one picks up the phone to ask Democrats on the committee whether the CBS report is accurate.

I talked to a Democratic staffer this morning about the partial transcript and the aide said Issa's staff "basically sandbagged this witness with a document he had never seen before and then failed to inform him that it has nothing to do with parts of the website that launched on October 1. In fact, it relates to a function of the website that is not currently active and won't be until the spring of 2014. Rather than seeking out the truth, this press release tries to scare the public by capitalizing on confusion caused by the Chairman's own staff."

Oh. So, when Republicans and CBS suggest the project manager in charge of building the federal health care website was apparently kept in the dark about serious failures in the website's security, they're leaving out pretty much every relevant detail that points in a more accurate direction.

The Democratic staffer added that even when this part of the website is active, it "will not submit or share personally identifiable information," but rather, will only include "insurance information plan data."

Let's say this again: beware of partial transcripts from Issa's office. They keep pulling this trick; there's no reason anyone should keep falling for it. [MSNBC.com, 11/12/13]

The "Cherry-Picked" Leak About Benghazi And YouTube

In 2014, Issa Leaked A State Department Email About Benghazi And An Anti-Islam YouTube Video. In a May 22, 2014 post on ABC News' website, Jonathan Karl quoted Issa's leak of a single sentence from a State Department email sent on the night of the September 11, 2012 Benghazi attack. That sentence explains that the White House was reaching out to YouTube with concerns that the attack had stemmed from a recently posted anti-Islam video. Issa claimed in the media that the State Department "has attempted to obstruct" the email's disclosure. [Media Matters, 5/22/14]

Issa's Leak Was Misleading. While the Issa leak was intended to show that the Obama administration had obstructed investigations into Benghazi because it didn't release the email, the White House's contacts with YouTube were already known months before the 2014 leak. They were reported by ABC News mere days after the attack and publicly acknowledged by the White House. [Media Matters, 5/22/14]

Cummings: "Issa Unilaterally Released A Cherry-Picked Document Excerpt." Cummings released a statement criticizing Issa's selective leaking:

Today, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, issued the following statement in response to the public release by Chairman Issa of a portion of a State Department e-mail that he claimed proved that the White House engaged in "a false narrative" after contacting YouTube with concerns about an anti-Islamic video during the attacks in Benghazi:

"This latest document leak makes the strongest case yet for Democrats seeking procedures to protect against these kinds of abuses. In what has become an irresponsible pattern, Chairman Issa unilaterally released a cherry-picked document excerpt-claiming it means one thing when in fact it means the opposite-and he disregarded the fact that his 'new evidence' was reported publicly two years ago. He did this without consulting Democrats, and it is unclear whether he even consulted Rep. Gowdy, who also sits on the Oversight Committee. These actions undermine the credibility of both the Oversight Committee and the new Select Committee, and Speaker Boehner should uphold his promise to end this circus." [Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, 5/22/14]

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.