February 20, 2013

(Jason Reed/Reuters)

Timeline:

Feb. 7: Ben Shapiro, editor-at-large of Breitbart News, publishes a story alleging that the reason why Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel hasn’t “turned over requested documents on his sources of foreign funding is that one of the names listed is a group purportedly called “Friends of Hamas.”

Shortly thereafter: Other conservative media pick up the story.

Also shortly thereafter: Rand Paul says that “Friends of Hamas” thing is “concerning.”

Feb. 14: Slate’s Dave Weigel reveals findings of investigation in search of “Friends of Hamas.” No results found.

Feb. 19: Dan Friedman of the New York Daily News writes that he was the source of the rumor. As he was poking around on the Hagel story, Friedman joked with a Capitol Hill source: “When rumors swirled that Hagel received speaking fees from controversial organizations, I attempted to check them out. On Feb. 6, I called a Republican aide on Capitol Hill with a question: Did Hagel’s Senate critics know of controversial groups that he had addressed? Hagel was in hot water for alleged hostility to Israel. So, I asked my source, had Hagel given a speech to, say, the ‘Junior League of Hezbollah, in France’? And: What about ‘Friends of Hamas’?” Somehow, that term filtered throughout Capitol Hill, perhaps igniting the rumor that landed with Shapiro.

When asked by Friedman whether he stood by “Friends of Hamas,” Shapiro replied that he’d used “very, very specific language” to steer clear of affirming the existence of any such organization. “The story as reported is correct. Whether the information I was given by the source is correct I am not sure,” Shapiro told Friedman.

Today: Shapiro blasts Friedman, writing that the New York Daily News reporter “knew” his story to be false upon publication.

Question No. 1: Does it get any better than this?

Question No. 2: Is there a single editor at Breitbart.com?

Breitbart.com opposes the mainstream media and all its traditions. That’s a good thing. Yet perhaps it could borrow a smidgen of MSM sourcing standards, even if it’s just for a month or so. Have a look at the central paragraph in this dustup, from Shapiro’s original dudshell:

On Thursday, Senate sources told Breitbart News exclusively that they have been informed that one of the reasons that President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has not turned over requested documents on his sources of foreign funding is that one of the names listed is a group purportedly called “Friends of Hamas.”

Bold text inserted to highlight loci of deniability. What this boils down to is anonymous sources saying they’ve been informed about something that’s purportedly true. That’s a good three generations away from solid. Who or what is doing the informing here? A website? Some random e-mail? And just what is meant by an organization that’s purportedly called “Friends of Hamas”?

All these phrases are what Shapiro must be referencing when he cites the “very, very specific language” in his story. Yes—very, very specific language conveying very, very extensive ambiguity.

Question No. 3: What’s a spokesman to do?

The Erik Wemple Blog rarely feels sympathy for flacks. Here, we did.

The entire Shapiro “Friends of Hamas” exclusive hinges on the behavior of a White House spokesman. Here’s the headline of the story: “SECRET HAGEL DONOR?: WHITE HOUSE SPOX DUCKS QUESTION ON ‘FRIENDS OF HAMAS’” The story details the reporter-spokesman transaction:

Called for comment and reached via telephone, Associate Communications Director at the White House Eric Schultz identified himself, heard the question, was silent for several seconds, and then hung up the phone immediately without comment. Called back via the White House switchboard, Schultz’s phone rang through to his answering machine. Called on his cell phone, Schultz’s phone rang through to his answering machine.

That’s one-third of Shapiro’s story.

Now put yourself in the shoes of Schultz. A reporter calls with an outlandish notion. Unless something’s really screwy, he offers no more proof of his scoop than does the story he eventually filed—which is to say, none whatsoever. You have several options here:

a) “No comment”
b) Hahahahaha
c) Engage in a discussion about Chuck Hagel and the “Friends of Hamas”
d) Run and hide

Question No. 4: Parse much?

Shapiro has stood by his story, saying, “The story as reported is correct. Whether the information I was given by the source is correct I am not sure.” Hey: The information you were given by the source is the story.

Question No. 5: Can Breitbart.com send Dave Weigel a few hundred bucks for research assistance?

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.