Washington Post fact check on White House and Benghazi emails gets three Pinocchios

In this Sunday, May 19, 2013, photo provided by CBS News White House senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer appears on CBS’s “Face the Nation” in Washington. Pfeiffer was scheduled to appear on five Sunday news shows Sunday, where he stated no senior officials were involved in the decision to give tea party groups extra scrutiny by the IRS.  Credit: AP

Yesterday, we noted that the the journalists across the spectrum seemed united in their skepticism of the Obama administration and its talking points after the IRS/Tea Party targeting. That was made clear when the Washington Post published a blistering fact-check of IRS official Lois Lerner. Now, the Post has published it’s second fact-check in as many days  with a  focus on Benghazi, showing the president could truly be losing the press.

The latest story focuses on the accusations by the White House attacking ABC News for allegedly misleading the public by representing paraphrased administration emails (specifically ones by national security adviser Ben Rhodes) regarding the editing of the Benghazi talking points as quotes. The Post has excerpts of the criticism:

“That’s a very serious offense that happened where Republicans on the Hill, we voluntarily provided these e-mails to, took one of them, doctored it and gave it to ABC News in an attempt to smear the president.”

— White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” May 19, 2013

“I think one of the problems that there’s so much controversy here is because one of the e-mails was doctored by a Republican source and given to the media to falsely smear the president.”

— Pfeiffer, on Fox News Sunday, May 19

“They received these e-mails months ago, didn’t say a word about it, didn’t complain … And then last week a Republican source provided to Jon Karl of ABC News a doctored version of a White House e-mail that started this entire fear. After 25,000 pieces of paper are provided to Congress they have to doctor e-mail to make political hay, you know they’re getting desperate here.”

— Pfeiffer, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” May 19

The “doctored” charge by the White House is a serious one, and the Post painstakingly recaps the timeline and the facts. But as the Post dug deep, it found that ABC’s Jonathan Karl was not “doctoring” emails (as even some of his colleagues at CNN and CBS have flirted with suggesting), but rather excerpting them and adding context:

When the White House last week released all of its e-mails, it became clear that Rhodes was responding at the tail end of a series of e-mail exchanges that largely discussed the State Department concerns.

When the White House last week released all of its e-mails, it became clear that Rhodes was responding at the tail end of a series of e-mail exchanges that largely discussed the State Department concerns.

In other words, the summary would have been fairly close if the commas had been removed and replaced with brackets: “We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities [including those of the State Department] and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.”

[...]

Moreover, the full disclosure of e-mails makes it clear that White House officials were concerned about the State Department’s objections.

Still, Karl has apologized for not making it clear he was summarizing/paraphrasing/adding context:

Karl over the weekend tweeted, “I sincerely regret the error I made describing an email from Ben Rhodes. I should have stated, as I did elsewhere, the reporting was based on a summary provided by a source. I apologize for my mistake.” He declined to comment further.

And the Post does not absolve Karl completely, still noting that he did not disclose the details surrounding the emails at the onset. But “doctored”? That gets three Pinocchios [emphasis added]:

It has long been part of the Washington game for officials to discredit a news story by playing up errors in a relatively small part of it. Pfeiffer gives the impression that GOP operatives deliberately tried to “smear the president” with false, doctored e-mails.

But the reporters involved have indicated they were told by their sources that these were summaries, taken from notes of e-mails that could not be kept. The fact that slightly different versions of the e-mails were reported by different journalists suggests there were different note-takers as well.

Indeed, Republicans would have been foolish to seriously doctor e-mails that the White House at any moment could have released (and eventually did). Clearly, of course, Republicans would put their own spin on what the e-mails meant, as they did in the House report. Given that the e-mails were almost certain to leak once they were sent to Capitol Hill, it’s a wonder the White House did not proactively release them earlier.

The burden of proof lies with the accuser. Despite Pfeiffer’s claim of political skullduggery, we see little evidence that much was at play here besides imprecise wordsmithing or editing errors by journalists.

Be sure to read the full analysis here.

For a full rundown of the specific ABC controversy surrounding the emails, see our coverage below: