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Diane Rehm And A Bungled Interview With Senator Bernie Sanders

WAMU host Diane Rehm fields a question from a fan during a question and answer period at a station fundraising dinner in 2008. BILL GREENBLATT/UPI /Landov hide caption

toggle caption BILL GREENBLATT/UPI /Landov

WAMU host Diane Rehm fields a question from a fan during a question and answer period at a station fundraising dinner in 2008.

BILL GREENBLATT/UPI /Landov

Another week, another Bernie Sanders column. And this time the issue is far more serious than repeatedly being called a "long shot."

Listeners are mad, and rightly so, about Diane Rehm's Wednesday interview with the Vermont senator, who is running for the Democratic nomination for president. (For the record, Rehm is employed by WAMU-FM, which produces her show; NPR distributes the show to stations across the country and it is clear from the mail I have received that listeners consider the program to be an NPR show.)

And Rehm? She told me this episode "has been the most difficult two days of my professional life."

To recap briefly what happened: During the interview Rehm said to Sanders: "Senator, you have dual citizenship with Israel." Even when Sanders immediately corrected her, Rehm pressed on, telling him his name was on a list of lawmakers with dual citizenship.

Charges immediately flew that Rehm was engaging in anti-Semitism; Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Rehm's statements "play into classic anti-Semitic charges of dual loyalty." As Politifact documented, the lists have circulated for nearly a decade.

Rehm's apology later in the day contained the jaw-dropping admission that she got the erroneous information from "a comment on Facebook."

Thursday, halfway through her show, she made a fuller apology:

I want to make a correction. On yesterday's show I raised the issue of dual citizenship with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. This is an issue that has come up over the years in American politics.

One of our listeners suggested by Facebook that I ask Senator Sanders about Internet speculation that he has dual citizenship with Israel. But instead of asking it as a question I stated it as fact and that was wrong. He does not have dual citizenship.

Senator Sanders immediately corrected me. I should have explained to him and to you why I thought this was a relevant question and something he might like to address. I do apologize to Senator Sanders and to you for having made an erroneous statement.

However I am glad to play a role in putting this rumor to rest.

I don't agree with her about what she "should" have done but before I get to that it's worth explaining in more detail the backstory. The question was posted on the show's Facebook page, in response to a call-out to listeners asking them what they wanted to hear from Sanders.

Senior producer Denise Couture researched the issue quickly that morning, before the show aired. She told me she didn't find any references to the dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship list in the mainstream press, but she did find articles that explored issues of dual citizenship (Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, for one, renounced his dual Canadian citizenship in 2013.) The web sites she found that dealt specifically with the list did not contain anti-Israel language (as some of the sites do).

Nonetheless, I was surprised that Rehm, who has covered politics on her show for nearly 36 years, didn't herself flag the topic when looking through her briefing papers.

Rehm told me that when she saw the Facebook question "I thought to myself, 'is this really true? Are there people who have dual citizenship?'" But she added, Couture "is a trusted producer." She said, "I made a terrible mistake by not following my instinct and looking into this on my own."

She added, "This is the first time in nearly 36 years that this show has ever been called out on an error, a terrible, terrible error, like this. I am so sad and so embarrassed that this has happened, but it was a mistake and I take full responsibility for it. I should have probed further. I should have looked into it myself when the doubts came into my own mind."

Rehm said the idea of dual citizenship, "did not seem to me to be such an outrageous question because people have it." But, she added, "The terrible mistake was not realizing that these lists had been put up by anti-Semitic groups." None of her producers, she said, were aware of the lists or their source.

But pulling unsubstantiated information from the Internet is just part of the problem. (An important part, to be sure: Mark Memmott, NPR's standards editor, has weighed in on that aspect with a reminder that "The old newsroom adage 'if your mother says she loves you, check it out,' applies to information on the Internet as well.") Jeff Brodin, a listener in Phoenix, Ariz., objected to a part of her apology that troubled me, as well: "She says she is glad to help quell the rumor. What? She is the one who published the rumor on the air as fact!"

I agree. Far from putting anything to rest, Rehm has now taken a falsehood from the fringes of the Internet and moved it into the mainstream conversation. In a harsh commentary, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo wrote yesterday that to ask an incendiary question just so it can be knocked down is essentially "dignifying, laundering hate speech."

Rehm called that accusation unfair. "It is attributing motive to me that was not there. And that's what many of these websites and tweets are now doing." She added that she is "really very upset that I'm being called an anti-Semite. Had I known that the site and the name and the sources were false it would never have been part of the interview."

Point taken. But more broadly. I see little value in offering interview subjects the opportunity to address Web rumors, "hate speech" or other. In general such questions just distract from what should be the more relevant conversation that listeners tell me they are craving in what is going to be a long campaign season: substantive information about the candidates' political platforms and plans. Sideline questions like these should largely be avoided, and Rehm, as a seasoned journalist, should know better.

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