February 21, 2013

(Charles Dharapak/The Associated Press)

Breitbart.com is turning this “Friends of Hamas” disaster into a journo-farce. On Feb. 7, the right-wing Web site published a story by editor-at-large Ben Shapiro saying that Senate sources had been informed that a possible reason that defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel hadn’t released foreign funding sources was a group “purportedly” titled “Friends of Hamas.” There’s no such group.

False, bogus, rubbish — as many folks have pointed out. How does Breitbart respond?

First via bluster and nonsense, as Shapiro wrote: “The story Breitbart News ran originally was accurate and clearly caveated.” And second via deflection, pointing readers to another story. Honestly: This piece, posted this morning under the byline of Joel Pollak, starts out this way:

There were not one, but two Breitbart News stories about the allegation that “Friends of Hamas” had donated to organizations connected to former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE). Both ran Feb. 7, and alongside one another, atop the site. The fact that the media have focused on the first, and ignored the second, is a testament to their refusal to hold Hagel to reasonable standards of disclosure, or to address the substantive issues related to his associations.

Would that the Erik Wemple Blog had such an option available. Report a flimsy rumor, watch it fall apart upon public scrutiny and then, when everyone demands a correction, just link to some other story. Woohoo!

The depravity here is self-denunciatory. You need only describe it to attack it. And critics have identified a genre problem of sorts. On NewYorker.com, Alex Koppelman writes: “At some point, if they want to be taken more seriously, members of the conservative media will have to take their own declarations about the commitment to journalism more seriously.” And the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf turns in a strong piece, “The Conservative Media Need to Self-Police for Their Own Sake.”

Both writers present valid points. Given the language that conservative media outlets use to critique mainstream outlets, you might suppose that they believe in sourcing, accuracy and accountability. And as Friedersdorf carefully notes, the garbage in Shapiro’s piece found its way to other right-leaning sites.

Yet, the misdeeds of the Breitbart folks in the “Friends of Hamas” incident are singular in their outlandishness. Or perhaps “doub-ular”, in that they look a lot like the method of the Daily Caller. That method entails silliness and intractability when you’re presented with irrefutable proof that a story is bogus. Few other media outlets — whether on the left, right or center — have flashed such behavior in recent years. “Breitbart.com and the Daily Caller have an exceptional record of, even when faced with overwhelming evidence, refusing to admit the truth,” says Ari Rabin-Havt, senior adviser of liberal Media Matters for America, an organization that monitors conservative media.

Media nerds could spend hours debating the flagrancy of Breitbart’s “Friends of Hamas” pushback vis-a-vis that of the Daily Caller in its infamous story about the Environmental Protection Agency. Both of them, after all, read from the same playbook. Back in September 2011, the Daily Caller reported that the EPA was seeking 230,000 new employees to enforce regulations on greenhouse gases. It wasn’t true — the agency was actually seeking to avoid hiring 230,000 new employees.

When faced with its error, the Daily Caller tied itself in knots of illogic. An editor’s note expressed pride in its defiance and attempted to deflect factually based objections from other journalists by citing politics: “Two organizations seem to have reacted the most rashly to our reporting: Media Matters for America and Mother Jones magazine. Both, it must be noted, are on the far fringe of left-wing thought.”

Just yesterday, Shapiro deployed the same tactic:

 

A scramble for impact explains both the lust for publishing overhyped stories and the utter unwillingness to consider that they may be tainted or inflated. Think of the archive: Breitbart on Barack Obama and Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell; the Daily Caller on a speech that Obama had delivered years ago in Virginia; the Daily Caller on the allegation that an Obama Commerce Department nominee had endorsed world government; Breitbart on “Friends of Hamas”; Daily Caller on the totally unproven allegations against Sen. Robert Menendez.

Do you think there’s a trend story here?

Both sites did their best last year to dig up stories that might crimp the reelection prospects of President Obama. But did they ever produce anything that the campaign of Mitt Romney could put to use? “I’m sure they must have, but I can’t really think of one at the moment,” says Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist and a top Romney aide.
The sin of feeding the public unconfirmed stories, says Stevens, runs up and down the mediological spectrum and is by no means limited to right-leaning outlets, contends Stevens. “I think that there’s a problem across the board in a reduction in standards that comes with the immediacy of media. I think it’s true in the New York Times as well as everything else. I think it’s a larger phenomenon,” says Stevens, who says he’s a fan of Breitbart.com and the Daily Caller. “I think more is better.”

That’s a tough position to counter. Media plurality is an unmistakable public good. When it comes to Breitbart.com and Daily Caller, however, “more” can mean more falsehoods and flimsy stories whose authors won’t listen to common sense when challenged.

And history has proven that these two sites have a corrections un-policy all their own. Because their brethren in conservative media — whether we’re talking about Fox News or the Washington Times or the Weekly Standard or the National Review — have been known to run corrections when wrong. Or, at least, they don’t dig in with risible explanations when their stuff is exposed as fraudulent.

Repeated attempts to get comment from various Breitbartians failed. Daily Caller’s top editor, Tucker Carlson, didn’t respond to an interview request, nor did the National Review’s Rich Lowry. Busy news day.

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