The Drudge Report, a conduit of conservative news, threw a wrench in the daily ritual of the White House press briefing. That’s when reporters pepper White House spokesman Jay Carney with questions. Drudge gave top billing to an item in the Weekly Standard, posted by online editor Daniel Halper.
In Halper’s article, the headline said it all: "Reporter: WH press secretary gets questions from reporters before press briefing: It’s just a show."
Halper didn’t write too much more. Mainly, he inserted a video of a reporter from an Arizona CBS affiliate talking about what she learned on her visit to the White House.
The reporter, Catherine Anaya, said Carney told her that the questions correspondents ask "are provided to him in advance. So then he knows what he's going to be answering and sometimes those correspondents and reporters also have those answers printed in front of them."
Drudge’s headline -- at the top of its page -- meant the news quickly spread through other websites and Twitter (likely making for a good traffic day at weeklystandard.com).
Then came the rebuttal. Carney tweeted, "Briefings would be a lot easier if this were true! Rest assured, it is not."
We got in touch with Anaya, and she let us know in an email that she had confused the matter. Basically, she had a question for President Barack Obama that was of more local than national interest. She had the option to submit it in advance, and she got that muddied with how the usual press briefings take place.
"I was attempting to not waste national time on a local question but in my attempt at explaining that I unintentionally made it sound like that experience applied to everyone," Anaya said. "That is my mistake and I own up to it."
Anaya’s station, CBS 5 News, also released a statement (from Anaya) saying she didn’t know the process for White House regulars. The statement was removed from the station’s website, but a copy is available here. The station says they are working on reissuing a statement. We’ll update this post when it’s available.
Update: Here is the CBS 5 statement, issued by Anaya.
"Last night during my live reports from the White House I attempted to describe the highlights of the day. I was speaking off the cuff and unscripted and in the process I made two major mistakes: I reported an off the record conversation and what I reported was not accurate. I took a conversation about the preparation for a press briefing and muddied it with my own experience of wanting to provide a question for the press briefing. I incorrectly applied the process to everyone. That was wrong and it was bad reporting. But it was not intentional and I would never purposely report inaccurate information. The White House never asked for my questions in advance and never instructed me what to ask. I chose to provide one of my questions in advance of the press briefing because I wanted to make sure it would have broad appeal. I did not attribute or report factually last night and for that I deeply apologize. I pride myself on truth and objectivity. I sincerely regret any harm I've caused and I hope that you will
We asked White House reporters if they are ever asked to send in their questions, and get replies, before the actual briefings. In one form or another, they all said, no way. (We also created a video attached to this fact-check that shows some of the interactions between Carney and the press corps.)
Steve Thomma, senior White House correspondent for McClatchy and president of the White House Correspondents Association said, "I've never heard of a scripted set up before a briefing."
CNN’s Jake Tapper, host of The Lead and veteran of many daily briefings, had a wry response: "The press briefing is not where you go to get clear and candid answers," Tapper said. "In terms of this bizarre meme that was birthed – no, I have never in any way submitted questions ahead of time to anyone at the White House for any reason."
NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley was also bemused. "This story has generated some pained smiles today in the White House press room," Horsley said.
Horsley explained that reporters ask plenty of questions outside of the briefings and so the press office staff will know what’s on their minds. If a longer term reporting story is in play, Horsley will tell the White House staff what he needs to know.
"But as a general rule, the briefings are not scripted that way. If they were, they could be a lot shorter," Horsley said.
We emailed the editors of the Weekly Standard but did not hear back. Halper, when confronted on Twitter by Fox News White House correspondent Ed Henry (who called the story "dead wrong"), said he was just reporting what Anaya said.
Drudge eventually updated its website, linking to a different article from Daily Mail with the headline, "UPDATE: Reporter retracts story, says Press Sec doesn't get questions in advance..."
The Drudge Report gave top billing to the claim that the daily White House press briefings are "just a show," with questions submitted and answered in advance.
That claim relied on the report of a television anchor in Arizona. But the Drudge Report did all it could to make the statement go viral. Accountability applies as much to spreading information, especially for a website as popular as the Drudge Report, as it does to the journalist who wrote the article.
The reporter behind Halper’s article now says she made a mistake and really doesn’t know what happens in the briefings. She was considering asking a question about a local issue and wanted to know if it would be appropriate to ask at the regular press briefing. She opted to save the question for her interview with Obama.
According to Carney and the reporters whom he faces daily, this scenario in no way matches up with their experiences.
Halper took a shaky report and drew a strong conclusion without proof. Drudge put that claim on steroids. We rate this statement Pants on Fire.