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HuffPo Memo Has Big Sourcing Problems

HuffPo_MemoAt yesterday’s White House Press Briefing, Robert Gibbs was repeatedly asked about a memo that was published by Huffington Post that morning. The memo purports to be the smoking gun that shows a list of trade-offs that the White House agreed to in exchange for PhRMA’s $80 billion in BOGO coupons. Gibbs referred to previous denials by the White House and the head of PhRMA that the memo was authentic.

The problem with the memo isn’t necessarily its factual content. Most of the details have been confirmed, to some degree, by the White House and PhRMA. However, the attribution on this memo is very weak. According to HuffPo, the memo was “obtained by the Huffington Post,” and authenticated by “a health care lobbyist following the talks (who) was provided the outline of the deal by a person inside the negotiations.”

Should Gibbs have to answer for documentation like this, or the emails that were the subject of a tense exchange between Gibbs and Major Garrett, that have not met the prima facie test for publication? Doesn’t the act of asking about them in a White House press briefing unduly elevate their credibility, in much the same way that Sarah Palin’s denial of unsourced divorce rumors elevated them to national prominence?

I spoke with the HuffPo reporter, Ryan Grim, and he was able to tighten up the attribution a little bit. He also provided his reasons for publishing the memo, despite the weak attribution.

First, on tightening the attribution, Grim told me that there were 3 separate parties involved, plus himself. The memo was leaked to him by someone inside the negotiations, as in at the table. He authenticated the memo through a second source, a pharmaceuticasl lobbyist who authenticated it through a third source. The third source was also at the table, and was the person who prepared the memo.

I asked Grim how he could defend publishing a memo with such weak attribution. He admitted that he struggled with the decision, but as a reporter, he felt that his own knowledge of the strength of his sources, combined with the public good in making known information that he knows to be true, outweighed those issues.

This is something that reporters struggle with, and the advent of blogs and 24-hour TV have moved the goalposts significantly on what can be published.

Having spoken with Ryan Grim, I have no doubt that he published the memo in good faith, and believes it to be authentic. On the other hand, as a journalist, I have to disagree with his decision, even if the thing is 100% real.

Journalism isn’t about what we know, it is about what we can verify. Attribution isn’t just some rubber stamp that we seek, mindlessly, in order to get something published. It allows readers to judge the credibility of the information offered. In this case, the fact that at least 2 of the 3 anonymous sources are likely connected to the pharmaceutical industry is relevant, because it shows that the memo is potentially self-serving. While Grim trusts his sources, readers deserve the chance to evaluate this for themselves.

I would add that I don’t think disclosure of weak sources is enough. While people can read the memo and evaluate the attribution, the mere fact that it is printed gives the reader the impression that it has passed some kind of test, and many will accept that on its face.

Grim also said that he expects his readers to trust his judgment, based on his body of work. That’s a fair point, but it didn’t help Dan Rather one bit, and it seems like the kind of argument that can cut both ways. Why shouldn’t Lou Dobbs’ viewers just “trust him” if he produces a memo like this confirming “Birther-gate?”

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