Anatomy of a Foul-Up

By Liz Cox Barrett and Thomas Lang

In yesterday’s New York Times, Jodi Wilgoren informed readers that “the weeklong controversy” over Sen. John Kerry’s “recent claim to have international support” for his presidential bid stemmed from an imprecise transcript of a March 8 Kerry fundraiser in Florida. The transcript was provided to the press by the Boston Globe’s Patrick Healy, one of the two reporters permitted by the Kerry camp to cover the March 8th event.

Healy now says that at the March 8 event Kerry said, “I’ve met more leaders who can’t go out and say it all publicly but boy they look at you and say, you gotta win this …” and not, as Healy originally reported to the press corps and in his own piece, “I’ve met foreign leaders who can’t go out and say it all publicly but boy they look at you and say, you gotta win this …” (Emphasis ours in both cases.) On Monday, Healy emailed a correction and an apology to the Kerry press corps inviting them all to “feel free to hold me accountable to your editors and higher-ups.”

The Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe also ran stories yesterday which included the correction. Reading the coverage of the misquote, Campaign Desk had questions, including: Who was the other pool reporter at the event and what did s/he hear Kerry say? Why were only two reporters permitted into the event?

So we called Patrick Healy to get more detail on what happened. Here’s the story behind the story, according to Healy.

Per ground rules recently worked out between the Kerry camp and the herd of some forty reporters who follow it, March 8 was the first time reporters were permitted inside a Kerry fundraising event. Because it was a small affair — just over fifty people, Healy says — a “mini-pool” of two reporters was allowed in rather than the full press pool which typically numbers 15 or 16 reporters (along with several tape recorders and a few TV cameras). Patrick Healy was the “print pooler” at the event and Catherine Loper, a Fox News Channel political correspondent, was the “TV pooler” who, Healy says, did not record the event. (Neither Loper nor the Kerry campaign returned Campaign Desk’s calls requesting comment).

When the event ended, Healy and Loper discussed what they both thought they heard Kerry say (that he’d “met foreign leaders”) and wondered which leaders Kerry was referring to. Healy “raced back to the bus where the pool was.” The Associated Press and Reuters reporters were especially eager to get something out, so Healy listened to his tape and within thirty minutes sent “a highlights email to the [press] pool” which included the erroneous Kerry quote. The AP later that day ran this story, including Kerry’s “foreign leaders” quote at the end. In a press release that day the Republican National Committee featured Kerry’s “foreign leaders” comment prominently with the headline, “John Kerry International Man of Mystery III: Communist North Korea Only Government on Record Supporting Kerry.”

That afternoon, Healy emailed the press pool a “partial transcript” of the event in which he paraphrased a comment, made by Kerry’s Florida finance chair Milton Ferrell, that prompted Kerry’s remarks about “foreign leaders.” In his own story the next day, Healy reported Kerry’s statement (and the RNC’s North Korea crack) several paragraphs deep in his campaign story (as did the New York Times).

When Secretary of State Colin Powell was presented with Kerry’s “foreign leaders” quote on “Fox News Sunday” last weekend and asked by Fox’s Chris Wallace to comment, Powell suggested Kerry name the “foreign leaders.” On the same day at a town hall meeting in Pennsylvania when Kerry was asked which “foreign leaders” he was referring to, he disputed the wording of the original quote but did not deny the premise. Kerry also declined to name “foreign leaders” specifically, saying that he would not betray any private conversations he’d had. Powell’s words, combined with Kerry’s additional comments on Sunday, elevated the “foreign leaders” comment from anecdotal aside to headline status in the Associated Press, the Boston Globe and the New York Times, among other places.

Healy says that “given the amount of attention” the Kerry comment eventually received, and given that Healy was “the only [reporter] who had a tape of the exchange,” he decided to revisit the recording Monday to “get all of the context and write a full transcript of the exchange” so that other reporters in the Kerry corps would have “as much context as possible.” (Pool reporters, Healy says, transcribe entire events if they’re “huge news events” but for this relatively small fundraiser he initially offered the pool a transcription of “most of it.”)

Reviewing the March 8 tape in the quiet of his own home Healy says he realized that Kerry had said “more leaders” and not “foreign leaders.” Hence, Healy’s mea culpa email Monday and yesterday’s news reports on the misreporting of Kerry’s comments.

Now for the misreporting on the misreporting of Kerry’s comments.

As yesterday’s Boston Globe points out, human error compounded human error. Although Healy, the Globe’s own reporter, made the original mistake, the Globe clarified that Kerry never (italics ours) “said he had ‘met with’ foreign leaders,” as “some accounts have reported.” Those erroneous “accounts” began March 12, four days after the Florida fundraiser, when the Washington Times ran a story by Charles Hurt and Stephen Dinan that provided this doubly wrong version of Kerry’s words (italics ours): “I’ve met with foreign leaders who can’t go out and say this publicly …” The “met with” version popped up on television again by mid-day March 12 when CNN’s Tucker Carlson repeated the error on “Crossfire”. Then this past weekend, on “Fox News Sunday,” Chris Wallace read Powell the incorrect “met with” version of the quote while the correct version (at the time), “I’ve met foreign leaders,” flashed on screen for the viewer. The error found its way into print again in Monday’s Washington Post.

The Washington Times continued to perpetuate this “met with” error yesterday, even as it attempted to correct the record per Healy’s e-mail. In yesterday’s paper, a story by Stephen Dinan and Joseph Curl stated, “Mr. Healy yesterday sent an update to members of the traveling press corps telling them that after listening to his tape of Mr. Kerry, he now thinks the senator said he has ‘met with more leaders,’ not ‘met with foreign leaders.’”

As noted above, Healy actually wrote in his email that he had incorrectly “heard” the words ‘foreign leaders’ rather than ‘more leaders,’” and “am certain that ‘more leaders’ is what Senator Kerry said.” Additionally, nowhere does Healy suggest that the word “with” — as in “met with” — belongs in the official record.

For those of you still reading, in sum, what Kerry apparently said on March 8 was, “I’ve met more leaders who …” rather than “I’ve met with foreign leaders who …”

Healy is to be commended for making the effort to correct his initial misquote. Will the Washington Times, Fox News Channel, CNN or the Washington Post correct their misquotes of Healy’s misquote? And might the Kerry campaign rethink its pooling policies? Having several scribes recording your every word can sometimes be useful. After all, reporters are only human.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.