In my career in blogging, I’ve learned a lot of useful rules and guidelines and principles that have kept me from making a lot of mistakes. Not that I haven’t made my share of them, but there would have been a hell of a lot more had I not followed these ideas as well as I have.
The first is something that I thought I garnered from Little Green Footballs, but now can’t seem to verify that. It’s something called the “48 Hour Rule.”
According to this rule, whenever a major news story breaks, something not immediately verifiable but still tremendously newsworthy, give it 48 hours or so to settle itself down, to work out its details, to let the flash fade and the substance to become clearer.
There’s also an old aphorism that “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof.”
Another is the notion that no story is “too good to verify.” Indeed, the stories that need the most investigation and verification are the ones that most confirm your own beliefs and suspicions and biases.
A fourth is that blogging is — at least for me — rarely about the “scoop.” I accepted a long time ago that I will almost never “break” a major story, and almost never rush to blog something to beat everyone else to publication. I think I’ve used the “Breaking News” category less than half a dozen times, and I’m closing in on 3,000 postings — a truly minuscule percentage.
Instead, I try to find something new to add to a story or an issue. An angle others haven’t tried, a correlation others haven’t drawn, an opinion that is uniquely mine, couched in my own words. And that’s worked out pretty damned well for me.
Over the last weekend, a story broke that set off all my alarms. It seemed that Fred Thompson, the former actor/senator and possible presidential candidate who is positioning himself as a “new Reagan,” who is a staunch pro-lifer, had been a paid lobbyist for a pro-choice group.
At least, that’s what the LA Times asserted.
The left side of the blogosphere erupted in paroxysms of glee. This was just the sort of thing they routinely wet themselves over — hypocritical Republicans doing something that would royally piss off their “base.”
One of those eruptions took place over on Wizbang Blue, where Larkin first commented on the story — ending his piece with rather snide note:
This just proves that Thompson has no principles or core beliefs and can be bought and paid for just like the rest of the crooks in the Republican Party. Read it and weep Wizbangers!
I bit back my initial response and, instead, counseled caution. This story sounded “too good to be true,” and I said the smartest thing to do would be to wait and see how it developed. At no point did I argue with a single allegation by the LA Times, but simply said that I wanted wait and see what else might come out before granting this story full credibility.
That was enough to set one commenter off, who assailed me repeatedly for… well, it was never that clear, but apparently my not immediately accepting the LA Times’ story as pure gospel was the same as calling the whole thing a filthy lie and insisting that Thompson is a saint. Or something.
Now, a few days after the LA Times article, we have some rather interesting developments. A few people have poked holes in the account.
For example, one of the people interviewed by the Times gave a truly vivid detail, one that gave a bit of versimilitude to the account, was that during the 1991 meeting where Thompson agreed to lobby the first Bush White House on abortion, Thompson had re-enacted a “death scene” from a western he had acted in. However, a scrutiny of Thompson’s acting career showed that he has only had two roles that MIGHT be considered “western” roles — one in 1992, and one in 2006.
For another, the key meeting happened on September 14, 1991, where Thompson allegedly agreed to act as a lobbyist for the pro-choice group. But Captain Ed discovered that Thompson did not register as a lobbyist for foreign concerns until October 10, 1991 — almost a month after that meeting. Considering that the law firm in question said that they brought Thompson on board specifically for his abilties as a lobbyist for foreign concerns, that puts a serious crimp in the timeline.
Finally, there is considerable evidence that the LA Times is not standing solidly behind their story. They have been caught going back and re-writing the story without noting the changes. The five interviewees have become “several,” the death scene story has quietly vanished, and other portions of the original story have been reworked.
One that, in particular, caught my eye was the mention of “White House Chief Of Staff John E. Sununu.” John E. Sununu is currently my junior senator, after serving in the House of Representatives; his father, John H. Sununu, had been George H. W. Bush’s chief of staff after serving as New Hampshire’s governor. A minor thing, but they made the mistake and corrected it without notice — not a good sign for their integrity.
So, we have the LA Times publishing a huge blockbuster of a story, then quietly backing off elements of it — not the “meat” of the story, but a lot of the supporting details. We have inconsistencies between official documents and the Times’ timeline. And we have people who were alleged to be involved in the story loudly denouncing the substance of the LA Times’ reporting.
In the end, though, what does it all add up to? Did some of these people from the pro-choice group realize that they had in their hands enough circumstantial evidence to put a major hurting on a leading pro-life Republican, and “fill in the blanks” with enough half-truths and outright fabrications to satisfy the LA Times, who were — like Dan Rather and Mary Mapes over the Texas Air National Guard forgeries — all to eager to accept a story that was “too good to verify?” Or did Thompson indeed sell set aside his principles at the time and cheerfully accept money to argue in favor of loosening federal laws and rules governing abortion?
A couple days later and I still don’t know. 48 hours hasn’t been enough, it seems. But as far as the other rules go:
The LA Times made an extraordinary claim, but so far their supporting evidence has been extraordinarily weak to challenges.
The LA Times apparently did NOT give the story anywhere near the heavy vetting it deserved, considering how thoroughly it confirmed their own biases (‘hypocritical pro-life Republicans”) and how big a story it was.
They wanted — and got — the “scoop.” That’s no big deal, though; that’s just the kind of thing that newspapers should be after all the time.
Regardless on how the story turns out, the LA Times’ conduct here is a textbook case of how NOT to handle a major story that could sink a leading presidential candidate.
Mary Mapes, however, would be so proud.