The conservative case against Chuck Hagel’s confirmation to be secretary of defense has been lots of smoke, but little fire, with Republican senators seizing on one thinly sourced report of alleged past misdeeds before jumping to the next as the previous one gets knocked down.
None of the charges were more ridiculous on their face than the allegation that Hagel took a paid speaking gig from a group indiscreetly called “Friends of Hamas.” The report came from Breitbart.com, which has a less than stellar reputation, citing unnamed “Senate sources.” Nonetheless, the news took off on the right, getting favorable coverage across the conservative blogosphere and attention from Sen. Rand Paul among other GOP politicians.
It turns out the group doesn’t even exist, and now we know where the rumor really came from.
New York Daily News reporter Dan Friedman, writing in the opinion section today, explains that he was the unwitting source. When asking a Senate Republican source about rumors that Hagel had failed to disclose speeches he gave to foreign audiences, Friedman jokingly asked if the Defense nominee had been paid $25,000 to speak to Friends of Hamas:
The names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically. No one could take seriously the idea that organizations with those names existed — let alone that a former senator would speak to them. Or so I thought.
The aide never got back to him, but apparently passed along the question to Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro, who ran with the story. It’s unclear whether the Senate source presented the information as a fact to Shapiro, misrepresenting Friedman’s facetious question, or if Shapiro turned it from a question to a fact, but either way, there were plenty of ethical lapses somewhere along the way.
Amazingly, Shapiro — who is the editor of Breitbart.com — stands by the report, explaining, “The story as reported is correct. Whether the information I was given by the source is correct I am not sure,” he said. His story has no correction or update indicating that it is false.
It’s hard to imagine that the Breitbart empire could get any worse after Andrew Breitbart died, but his explosive scoops usually had something to substantiate them, even if he vastly exaggerated their significance or dishonestly represented parts. And when he got something completely wrong, as he did in the Shirley Sherrod firing, he at least had the decency to admit it (begrudgingly and after plenty of prodding).
Journalists get stuff wrong, it happens, but you have to correct it when you do. Shapiro seem to have no interest in doing that, let alone getting it right in the first place.