ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl's statement in response to criticism for the deceptive sourcing in his so-called “exclusive” on administration talking points on the September attacks in Benghazi is fundamentally misleading.
In a statement to CNN, Karl claimed that ABC News “updated our story immediately” when it became clear it was based on misquoted emails from administration officials. But Karl also insisted the story “still entirely stands,” and the network has issued no on-air corrections. In fact, in two on-air reports on the release of administration emails that debunked his reporting, Karl said that those emails “confirm” ABC News' original story.
Conservatives have long claimed that the Obama administration edited references to terrorism out of the Benghazi talking points for political reasons. Karl buttressed those allegations with a May 10 report that claimed, based on what appeared to be direct quotes from the emails of White House and State Department aides, that “the edits were made with extensive input from the State Department.”
Karl's “exclusive” received widespread coverage even though it was largely a rehash of previously covered debates on who gave input into the talking points. It did not disprove what Gen. David Petraeus, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, testified in November: that the intelligence community signed off on the final draft of the talking points, and that references to terrorist groups in Libya were removed in order to avoid tipping off those groups.
But Karl's story dissolved after CNN's Jake Tapper obtained a key email from a White House aide that differed substantially from how it had been quoted by Karl. The ABC News reporter then acknowledged that he had never seen the actual emails on which he had reported. Rather, a Republican source had read him their own summaries of those emails.
On May 20, CNN's Howard Kurtz reported the following statement from Karl: “Clearly, I regret the email was quoted incorrectly and I regret that it's become a distraction from the story, which still entirely stands. I should have been clearer about the attribution. We updated our story immediately.”
This statement merely compounds the dubious practices that in which Karl and ABC News have engaged with regard to this story.
Karl's statements that he “regret[s]” the email obtained by Tapper was “quoted incorrectly” and that he “should have been clearer about the attribution” effectively ignores the central impropriety that led media observers to call his story “sloppy” and “inaccurate”: his repeated false claims, both on-air and in his online report, that he had actually “obtained” the emails on which he reported. In so doing, and in providing what he described as direct quotes from those emails, Karl willfully misled his audience. As TPM Media's Josh Marshall wrote:
[T]hat's not a minor point because the impact of his story was based on his having reviewed them himself rather than relying on a second hand account -- having gotten some summary of them from a tendentious source -- a Republican staffer. The fact that Karl put the non-quotes within quotation marks makes it pretty clear that he was led to believe that he was being given verbatim transcriptions. You never put summaries in quotes.
Karl's claim that his story “entirely stands” is laughable. Don't take my word for it: both CNN's Tapper and CBS' Major Garrett have pointed out how Karl's story diverges from reality in the wake of the release of the administration emails on the editing of the talking points.
Karl's statement that “We updated our story immediately” is also risible. ABC News has never addressed or corrected on-air any of its reporting on the story -- including repeated false claims by Karl himself and by Martha Raddatz and Reena Ninan that the network had actually “obtained” the emails.
In fact, in his May 15 report for World News with Diane Sawyer on the White House's release of roughly 100 pages of administration emails on the talking points, Karl claimed that the released emails “confirm ABC News' exclusive report.”
Likewise, during his May 16 report for Good Morning America, Karl said the emails “confirm what ABC News first reported.”
As for the online version of the story, Karl authored a May 14 blog post explaining that he had never actually seen the emails and had instead been “quoting verbatim a source who reviewed the original documents and shared detailed notes” and providing that source's false explanation for the discrepancy. ABC News has appended that post to the original May 10 story along with the following “editor's note”:
Editor's Note: There were differences between ABC News' original reporting on an email by Ben Rhodes, below, and the actual wording of that email which have now been corrected. ABC News 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. The remainder of the report stands as accurate.
The editor's note does not address the issue of Karl's false suggestion in the article that he had actually obtained the emails in question, other than to say he should have been “more precise” in his sourcing. While the note claims the differences between the actual email's text and the text Karl quoted have been “corrected,” the original false quote actually remains unchanged in the story, though Karl's explanation for those discrepancies has been added to the end of the article.
And of course, the claim that “the remainder of the report stands as accurate” is a ridiculous attempt to save face that is frankly insulting to ABC News' viewers.