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02.11.13

Dear Journalists: Stop Quoting Unnamed GOP Senate Aides Who Lie To You

So now the Senate Armed Services Committee has scheduled a vote to pass Chuck Hagel's nomination to be Defense Secretary on to the full Senate—or not, though the Senate Majority Leader says he plans a full vote later this week. There's a quick side-note in this brouhaha over the vote that's worth breaking out and examining, because it provides a nice lesson for D.C. journalists. The teachable moment comes via Politico, which reported last night: 

Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel could get a vote in committee as early as Tuesday, but Republican aides reacted to that idea by suggesting that some members could walk out in protest....

"[E]ither you will see a party line vote or Republicans will stand up and leave the room in protest,” said a senior Republican Senate aide. 

The story's since been updated, playing down the walkout threats because, well, because it turns out the threats weren't very serious. "I will not participate in any walkout of tomorrow’s Committee vote—an action that would be disrespectful to Chairman Levin and at odds with the best traditions of the Senate Armed Services Committee," a leading Armed Services Republican, John McCain, said in a statement today. The ranking Republican on the committee, James Inhofe, added that he wouldn't walk out either. The office of Ted Cruz, who's led the unprecedented witch-hunt against Hagel, hadn't even heard of the walkout threat

This is becoming a pattern, an espeically acute one in the Hagel confirmation fight: Senate Republican aides say things that just aren't true, and credulous journalists type them up and file their stories. Luckily, I don't need to run down all the instances of GOP aides overplaying their hands to reporters because Dave Weigel did it for me. I would add only the time an unnamed Senate GOP aide told BuzzFeed's Zeke Miller that McCain was backsliding on his opposition to a filibuster: "I'm told several Senators, including McCain, who have previously expressed opposition to a filibuster said privately yesterday that failure to disclose foreign funding information would change their thinking," the aide said. It was hooey, of course, as a McCain spokesman later told BuzzFeed: "Senator McCain believes that Members need to have their questions answered, but his position on filibuster is unchanged." That line was, of course, way down at the bottom of the post in an update.

Here's a sobering thought, fellow journalists: there're a few GOP Senate aides out there who won't hesitate to tell you falsehoods they think can help advance their agenda. And, of course, Democratic aides can do the same thing, but no controvery in recent memory jumps out quite like the Hagel fight, and Republican aides' role in it since the moment Hagel's name was floated. The problem with this is it's not really journalism to present their falsehoods unchallenged; our job is not to publish what people tell us, but publish things that are true. And here're some ideas for solving this problem: Don't let them get away with it. Stop quoting them. Fact-check Senate GOP aides who've caused you to get egg on your face before—especially when they mention another Senator, for whom they presumably don't work, by name. The irony is that the sources always get away scott free: their names never get used in the stories. Instead, it's the reporters who look silly, and rightfully so.