Smearing Hagel: The conservative "media" in action
February 21, 2013By Dick Polman
What follows is a classic example of how a lie metastasizes in the body politic. To fully appreciate how the conservative "media" does its dirty work, erasing the line that separates rumor from reportage, here is Exhibit A.
On the rabid right, it has lately become an article of faith that ex-GOP senator Chuck Hagel, the president's Defense nominee, is a guy who consorts with terrorists. The word is out that Hagel has received money from a group called Friends of Hamas. The word is deemed true because a slew of right-wing outlets have reported it as true.
Friends of Hamas doesn't exist.
It doesn't show up on any of the sponsors-of-terror lists compiled by the State and Treasury depatments, because it doesn't exist. It can't even be Googled, because there is nothing to Google.
So how did conservatives come to believe that it existed, and that Hagel was in cahoots with it? Prepare to be nauseated.
It all started on Feb. 6, when Dan Friedman, a tabloid reporter at the New York Daily News, phoned a Republican aide on Capitol Hill, hoping to find out whether Hagel had ever spoken to groups that were known to be hostile to Israel. Friedman, speaking in hyperbolic hypotheticals, wanted to know whether Hagel had any ties to groups like, for instance, "Junior League of Hezbollah" or "Friends of Hamas." He followed up with an email. The aide never got back to him.
But the aide apparently asked around, sharing the "Friends of Hamas" hyperbole with other aides, because here's what happened a day later, on Feb. 7: Breitbart.com, the conservative "news" site, posted a headline that rocked the right. SECRET HAGEL DONOR?: WHITE HOUSE SPOX DUCKS QUESTION ON 'FRIENDS OF HAMAS'
According to the three-paragraph story, "Senate sources" told Breitbart News "exclusively" that Hagel had received foreign funding from "a group purportedly called 'Friends of Hamas.'" Based on what his "sources" had told him, writer Ben Shapiro called a White House spokesman for comment. Shapiro wrote that the spokesman hung up on him. Shapiro apparently decided that being blown off by the White House was sufficient confirmation. He tweeted a link to his Twitter followers.
And then, the deluge. The right-wing website Powerline copied and pasted Shapiro's dispatch, and topped it with the headline TIME TO STICK A FORK IN HAGEL. The National Review's Andrew McCarthy linked to the Powerline item, quoted Powerline quoting Shapiro, and topped his own post with the headline IS HAGEL TOAST?
That same day - this is still Feb. 7 - conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt amplified the echo chamber ("one piece of information that Ben Shapiro at Breitbart put out today..."), as did the conservative website redstate.com (the headline: BREITBART.COM TOLD THAT CHUCK HAGEL TOOK MONEY FROM 'FRIENDS OF HAMAS').
Four days later, on Fox Business, Andrew McCarthy amplifed further in a chat with Lou Dobbs. McCarthy threw in a caveat - Hagel's ties to "an outfit called Friends of Hamas" were "not confirmed yet" - but he suspected that the ties were real because the White House was "not denying it very vigorously." Dobbs was fascinated by the group's name: "That has a ring to it, doesn't it?" McCarthy's responding quip: "Catchy."
Catchy name indeed, for a group that has no basis in factual reality.
What's most fascinating (and so predictable) is that none of the outlets repeating the story tried to confirm whether the story was actually true. You know, Reporting 101. The Breitbart guy simply recycled what his "Senate sources" had told him, without seeking any documentation that would prove or disprove the group's existence - and everyone else repeated this fundamental error of omission. Even those who tossed in cautionary caveats, as McCarthy did on the Dobbs show, basically ran with the phony story anyway. Witness think-tank scholar Frank Gaffney, who wrote in the conservative Washington Times that even though "it cannot be determined" that Hagel is "literally" associated with Friends of Hamas, "it seems entirely plausible," and therefore Hagel's ties "should be the last straw for Senate Republicans and Democrats alike."
Which brings us back to Dan Friedman, the New York tabloid reporter who unwittingly triggered this right-wing roundelay. In an opinion story yesterday, he recounted how the whole thing started with his hypothetical. In his words, "I became part of an inadvertent demonstration of how quickly partisan agendas and the Internet can transform an obvious joke into a Washington talking point." And in a video, he talked a bit about Reporting 101: "Many journalists would actually check - they would Google 'Friends of Hamas' to see if it exists, before writing it."
But, of course, the miscreants in this sordid episode are not journalists (at least not in the traditional sense). Rather, they are propagandists, and their brief is to give good message, not to master the reporting fundamentals. And until the Hagel impasse is finally resolved, I would advise the nominee to forego dining in any Arab restaurants, lest rumor morph into fact that he is a notorious Friend of Hummus.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1