Anatomy of a Fox News smear: Ann Coulter, Matt Drudge and the "dumbest person on the Internet"

How did Fox News run a totally bogus Ferguson story? Welcome to the truly slimy side of the right-wing hit machine

Published August 26, 2014 10:35PM (EDT)

  (Fox News/AP/Michael Caulfield/Cliff Owen)
(Fox News/AP/Michael Caulfield/Cliff Owen)

The killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man shot at least six times by police officer Darren Wilson, and the resulting protests in Ferguson, Missouri, left the right-wing media machine in something of a conundrum. Days ticked by and still there was no viable right-wing narrative.

Then, six days after the shooting, Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson bowed to pressure from the community and media and identified Wilson as the cop who shot Brown. At the same time, Jackson released two new bits of information. He said Wilson had been taken to a hospital after the shooting with swelling to his face. He also released a store surveillance video that showed Brown reaching over a counter and grabbing a handful of cigars, then pushing a store clerk on his way out.

This was a turning point in the story: Ferguson police seemingly wanted to transform Michael Brown from an innocent victim to a criminal. Still, it was hard to justify killing a young man with no previous record -- especially shooting him six times, for allegedly stealing a handful of cheap cigars.

It wasn't long before Fox News was pushing a new narrative: Michael Brown wasn't just the latest in a depressingly long line of unarmed young black men to be gunned down by a white cop. He was a thug, they suggested, a criminal who deserved what he got, because he posed a deadly threat to Officer Wilson.

This was proven, Fox News reported with an unnamed source, because "the officer had sustained a fractured eye socket in the incident." Ann Coulter even suggested, incorrectly, that we'd seen X-rays of the fracture. Fox went on to claim "solid proof" of a battle between Wilson and Brown for the officer's handgun.

It was not long, of course, before CNN and others disproved such bogus claims. But how did such fiction make it all the way to an outlet as major, if intellectually challenged, as Fox News?

Enter Jim Hoft -- the man often described as the stupidest man on the Internet, by people on both the left and the right.

Here's how it happened.

Perhaps the first shot in the right-wing news campaign to smear Michael Brown came in the form of a call to a conservative talk radio host Dana Loesch on Aug. 15. A caller who claimed to be a friend of Wilson's -- who would only identify herself as Josie -- told Loesch that Brown had "bum rushed" officer Wilson, punched him in the face and tried to go for Wilson's gun. Brown and his friend then walked away. Wilson pulled his gun and ordered Brown to stop. Brown turned around, taunted Wilson, then again "bum rushed" him. Wilson fired six shots, the last shot to Brown's forehead. "Josie" claimed that she had gotten this information from a Facebook discussion. She did not claim that Wilson had been seriously injured in the encounter.

Much discussion and rampant speculation  followed in the right-wing blogosphere, even though the only source was an anonymous caller to a radio show and a supposed Facebook discussion. Then, on Aug. 19, Jim Hoft, a St. Louis-based blogger, announced on his site Gateway Pundit that Wilson had suffered an “Orbital Blowout Fracture to Eye Socket.”

"The Gateway Pundit can now confirm from two local St. Louis sources that police Officer Darren Wilson suffered facial fractures during his confrontation with deceased 18 year-old Michael Brown. Officer Wilson clearly feared for his life during the incident that led to the shooting death of Brown. This was after Michael Brown and his accomplice Dorian Johnson robbed a local Ferguson convenience store."

Hoft offered a still from a CT scan as evidence of Wilson's injury. It did not take long for people to debunk the story. Later that afternoon on the website Little Green Footballs, Charles Johnson, who takes delight in debunking Hoft, shredded the story.

Johnson cited video of the immediate aftermath that showed an apparently uninjured Wilson casually strolling around the scene of Brown's body lying in the middle of the street. He also pointed out that the CT still Hoft posted was actually a stock image lifted from the website of American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus that had been crudely altered to block out the identifying information.

Johnson pointed out that the image Hoft posted cuts off the line at the bottom of the original image that identifies it as coming from University of Iowa Education Technology Center. Hoft did not specifically say the image was Officer Wilson, but he also did not say that it wasn't. He apparently wanted to create the impression that it was, indeed, an image of Officer Wilson's head. At some later time Hoft added a caption to the image that identifies it as a "File Image," but this information was only added after Hoft had been caught red-handed.

Hoft also cited a tweet from Christine Byers, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who said, "Police sources tell me more than a dozen witnesses have corroborated cop's version of events in shooting." This was odd, as at this point there had been no story from Wilson, who had gone into hiding shortly after the shooting.

Apparently the Post-Dispatch found it odd, too, as the paper published a story making clear that they never published Byers' information, that she was not working on this story, and that she had been on leave since March. Byers then tweeted: "On FMLA from paper. Earlier tweets did not meet standards for publication."

Meanwhile, despite the obvious problems with Hoft's story, it was just too juicy for the right-wing blogosphere to ignore. Finally there was a narrative that painted Brown as a violent thug and Wilson as a man who was badly beaten and justified in fearing for his life. Couching the nonsense behind weasel-words like "report" and "claim," they pushed the nonsense into the media bloodstream.

In short order Hoft's story spread throughout the right-wing blogosphere. The right-wing media machine was cranking up. Early in the afternoon of Aug. 19, the right-wing libertarian site Before It's News cited Mark Dice's YouTube report, which in turn cited Hoft's story.

Dice is something of a low-budget Alex Jones, but naturally it wasn't long before Jones himself would weigh in. On  InfoWars, Jones' website, the headline was "FERGUSON LYNCH MOB: NO JUSTICE FOR COP ACCUSED OF KILLING MICHAEL BROWN - Dozen witnesses say Michael Brown attacked officer before shooting." The sourcing? InfoWars cited, yes, Hoft's story and Byers' tweet.

The next day Glenn Beck's The Blaze cited Hoft's report under the headline "Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson Beaten Nearly Unconscious, Suffered Eye Socket Fracture Before Shooting Michael Brown: Report."

Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller also cited Hoft, under the headline "Claim: Darren Wilson Suffered Fractured Eye Socket."

Soon the story had been picked up by pretty much all of the right-wing noise machine, including Matt Drudge, Breitbart, Right Wing News, the Washington Times and the New York Post.

Now that the story had broken into the wild and had been reported by numerous sources -- all citing Jim Hoft's original report as well as each other -- Fox News decided it had enough cover to report on Hoft's bogus story.

They ran the story every half-hour with a flashing "ALERT ALERT" image at the bottom of the screen and cited , yep, Jim Hoft's report.

Later in the day Fox found its own anonymous source. Fox cited a "well-placed source" that was "close to the [Ferguson police] department's top brass" who claimed that there was "solid proof" that “He [Wilson] was beaten very severely.”

What had started out as a sketchy story on a sketchy blog that was full of glaring holes had now become rock-solid news reported by the leader of the right-wing news machine. Never mind that Fox was also citing an anonymous source; the story was true because they said it was true. Soon the story moved from right-wing outlets to respectable mainstream news sources.  The Washington Post also found an anonymous source and reported:

"The officer who fatally shot an unarmed Ferguson youth suffered a fracture to his eye bone in a scuffle with Michael Brown, according to a family friend.

The hospital X-rays of the injury have been submitted to the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, and will be shared with a grand jury now weighing evidence to determine if Officer Darren Wilson should be charged in the shooting."

A little later in the day the Washington Post walked it back and contradicted its own story, but without retracting or updating the original report.

"​[St. Louis County Prosecutor spokesman Ed] Magee said that prosecutors have not received any medical records relating to Wilson so far. ​But he said that since Wilson was taken to the hospital, they assume there are medical records and they just haven’t received them yet.

A family friend of Wilson’s told The Washington Post that Wilson suffered a fractured eye socket. Ferguson police have said that Wilson’s face was injured and he needed medical treatment, but they did not go into any detail. On Wednesday night, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III told Fox News that he could not confirm reports that Wilson suffered a fractured eye bone."

That afternoon CNN "unequivocally" debunked Hoft's claim. Don Lemon reported that according to sources in the Ferguson Police Department, Darren Wilson did have swelling and did visit an emergency room. X-rays were taken but came back negative. There was no fracture.

Later the same day, as the anonymous reports began to unravel and it became clear that they were inaccurate, the Washington Post threw up its hands and published a "here's what everybody says, you sort it out" article that cast even more doubt on its earlier reporting:

"It is not known just how severe Wilson’s injuries were following the encounter. Jackson, the Ferguson police chief, only said that the side of Wilson’s face was swollen and that he required treatment at a hospital, but he did not elaborate beyond that. A family friend of Wilson’s told The Washington Post that the officer suffered an eye bone fracture during the encounter with Wilson. This friend also said hospital X-rays of this injury were going to be shared with the office of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney McCulloch.

A spokesman for McCulloch said they have received no medical records yet relating to Wilson and said they could not comment on the officer’s injuries."

CNN, who hadn't reported on Hoft's story, gleefully scolded Fox News for running with a bogus story from a blogger with a reputation for posting splashy, and untrue, stories. CNN media critic Brian Stelter blasted Fox: "Frankly, I'm surprised that Fox ripped the information off this blog and repeated it on air."

In a matter of days a story that stared out on a blog circulated throughout the right-wing media machine and made it all the way up and into the legitimate news media, then crashed and burned as it became apparent the story was simply not true -- which everyone involved should have known right from the start.

And what of Jim Hoft? How did Hoft react when his story fell apart? Being Jim Hoft means never having to say "I was wrong." In fact, in a follow-up piece, Hoft doubled down. His original two anonymous sources were now four anonymous sources. Hoft even took CNN to task for not running with his original BS story. Under the headline "NOW THERE ARE FOUR SOURCES: Officer Darren Wilson Suffered Fractured Eye Socket," Hoft hilariously cites himself as a source, then closes with: "CNN really needs to be more responsible with such sensitive information."

Not only was Hoft doubling down on his now discredited original story, he was taking a victory lap. He claims to have single handedly caused the "Liberal Media" to pull out of Ferguson under the banner headline "Liberal Media Pulls Out of #Ferguson – After Reports of Officer Wilson’s Busted Up Face" And for extra comedic effect, Hoft cites World Net Daily, one of the craziest, least reliable sources in the entire wingnutosphere and known to critics as World Nut Daily.

Hoft is still "reporting" on Ferguson, posting a string of articles that take race baiting to the next level. He talks about "black lynch mobs" and decries the looting and rioting while poor, innocent Darren Wilson is "struggling" and "in fear for his life." He claims Wilson's supporters are receiving death threats (from black people) and reports on how white people are co-opting the now famous "hands up" posture to promise not to rob convenience stores. He explains that Mike Brown's family calling for an end to protests is actually a calling for protests to continue.

And now you know why Jim Hoft is often referred to as the Dumbest Man on the Internet. But why any news source anywhere -- even Fox News -- would ever cite anything this guy writes, on any subject, remains a mystery.

By John Avignone

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