Media uncritically repeated Dobson's purported disclosure of "confidential" information

››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

In October 12 reports, numerous media outlets -- including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post -- uncritically reported Focus on the Family founder and chairman James C. Dobson's purported defense of his prior refusal to reveal "confidential" information that he claimed to have received from the White House about Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers. In fact, the information that Dobson now claims to have received from White House senior adviser Karl Rove, which he said at the time reassured him about the Miers nomination, had already been widely reported following Miers's nomination, even as Dobson was claiming he couldn't disclose it because it was confidential. Thus, either Dobson was not telling the truth then -- and was not in fact in possession of confidential information about Miers -- or he is not telling the truth now and has yet to disclose the confidences Rove shared with him. By uncritically repeating what Dobson now claims to have learned from Rove, the media are letting Dobson get away with not telling the truth about that conversation.

As Media Matters for America has documented, at least as late as October 5 Dobson was claiming that he could not reveal the "confidential" information that had led him to support the Miers nomination. The assertion touched off demands from senators in both parties that Dobson disclose the information to which he had purportedly been privy.

Responding to that outcry, Dobson released prepared remarks on October 11, which he then broadcast on the October 12 edition of his nationally syndicated Focus on the Family radio program. Dobson claimed that two days prior to Miers's nomination, Rove told Dobson of three facts about Miers that led Dobson to support her nomination. Rove purportedly informed him that: 1) Miers "is an Evangelical Christian ... from a very conservative church, which is almost universally pro-life"; 2) she "had taken on the American Bar Association (ABA) on the issue of abortion and fought for a policy that would not be supportive of abortion"; and 3) she "had been a member of the Texas Right to Life."

Dobson claimed that he had initially refused to reveal the information he had received from Rove "[b]ecause it was a confidential conversation, and I've had a long-standing policy of not going out and revealing things that are said to me in confidence." Dobson then declared that he could now reveal the information because "by Wednesday [October 5] and Thursday [October 6] and Friday [October 7], all this information began to come out, and it was no longer sensitive."

But Dobson's claim -- that the information he purportedly obtained from Rove was not initially available when Miers was nominated -- is false. In fact, many of the first news reports after Miers's October 3 nomination contained the "confidential" information Dobson allegedly received from Rove. For example, The Washington Post reported on October 4 that according to Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, a close friend of Miers, she "has always tithed to the Valley View Christian Church in Dallas, where antiabortion literature is sometimes distributed and tapes from the conservative group Focus on the Family are sometimes screened." Similarly, the same Post report documented Miers's efforts to rescind the ABA's support for abortion: "Miers also stepped up her involvement in the American Bar Association, serving on key committees and leading an effort to force a referendum on the association's abortion rights stance. It was a time when many conservatives were quitting the ABA, but Miers chose to fight from within."

Dobson's claim that Rove informed him that Miers "had been a member of the Texas Right to Life" apparently refers to another piece of information that was widely available when Miers was first nominated. According to a separate October 4 Post report, in order to "appease" conservatives who were wary of the nomination, Miers's own publicist on October 3 highlighted the fact that Miers had contributed $150 to an anti-abortion group:

Miers's supporters tried to appease conservatives by releasing information suggesting she opposes abortion rights. Publicist Keith Appell issued a statement saying: "According to Kyleen Wright at Texans for Life, Harriet Miers gave $150 to the organization -- then known as Texans United for Life -- in 1989. Miers was a bronze patron for their annual dinner in which Henry Hyde was the keynote speaker." Hyde, a congressman from Illinois, is a leading opponent of legalized abortion.

If the information about Miers that Dobson cited on October 12 was in fact the information he had obtained from Rove, then it was hardly "confidential," his claims on October 5 notwithstanding. Alternatively, Dobson is not being truthful now in purporting to disclose what Rove told him.

And yet, despite the fact that it appears one way or another that Dobson was not telling the truth, many media outlets have uncritically reported his assertion that he is now free to disclose -- and has just disclosed -- the information he received from Rove because it is no longer confidential. For example, The New York Times reported on October 12 that "Mr. Rove gave Mr. Dobson permission to discuss the call, and much of the information has now become public," without reporting that the information was immediately made public when Miers was first nominated. The Los Angeles Times falsely reported that Dobson only claimed the information was "private" at the time of his October 1 meeting with Rove, when Dobson actually maintained it was "confidential" until at least October 5: "Dobson said that though the information Rove provided on Miers was private at the time of the conference calls, it has since been reported from other sources and that Rove had agreed he could share it publicly." The Washington Post's October 12 report of Dobson's defense did not even mention his claim that he had withheld the information because it was initially unavailable elsewhere.

After airing a clip from Dobson's remarks on the October 12 broadcast of ABC's Good Morning America, co-anchor Charlie Gibson concluded that "Rove stressed to him [Dobson] her [Miers] religious beliefs." Also, on the October 12 edition of CNN's American Morning, while noting that Dobson's statement disclosed nothing new about Miers, CNN correspondent Dana Bash similarly accepted the statement as true:

BASH: So what did Karl Rove say to James Dobson? Well, apparently, things that mostly we already know. He was trying to push her conservative credentials by talking about Miers personally, saying that she is from a very conservative church that is almost universally pro-life.

According to Dobson, Rove also conveyed to him that President Bush has "complete confidence" that Miers will "interpret the law rather than create it" and "would not make social policy from the bench" or "use [her] powers to advance [her] own political agenda." But those representations were never "confidential" either; they merely echo the pledge Bush publicly made when he nominated Miers.

In fact, the only apparently new disclosure Dobson made in his October 12 remarks is that before Miers was selected, several candidates who appeared to be "passed over" actually withdrew their names from consideration out of concern that the confirmation process had grown too "vicious." But the October 12 newspaper reports noted Dobson's claim without mentioning that it undermines President Bush's claims that Miers was "the best candidate I could find." Reuters noted this discrepancy in an October 12 report, writing that the White House acknowledged that several candidates did withdraw their names but maintained "that had nothing to do with President George W. Bush's eventual selection of White House lawyer Harriet Miers."

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