February 20, 2013

Get fooled once? Sure. Get fooled again and again, and ask for more? Only if you want to be fooled.

That’s the real lesson of the embarrassing “Friends of Hamas” incident and the Republican Party and the Republican-aligned partisan media. To recap: a reporter for Breitbart.com wrote a story that alleged Chuck Hagel had nefarious links to something called “Friends of Hamas.” The story was rapidly picked up by high-profile conservatives such as Mike Huckabee, Hugh Hewitt, Andrew McCarthy, and others, but when Dave Weigel noticed all that he smelled a rat and investigated, and found out that”Friends of Hamas” doesn’t actually exist. Today, we got what is probably the rest of the story: the story appears to be begun as basically a joke by a New York Daily News reporter who was talking to one Senate staffer; it apparently then was repeated and spread among GOP Senate staff until winding up getting published as a real report.

Of course, we’ve known for some time that Breitbart.com shouldn’t be trusted to get even the basics right: That was the big takeaway from the Shirley Sherrod story two years ago. And yet here we are, two years later, and the conservative information feedback loop still accepts whatever they toss out there.

Any reporter can get something wrong, any publication can hire a bad reporter, and anyone can mistakenly believe something, especially from a trusted new source, that turns out to be fraudulent. The question is what comes next. Does the reporter get punished for botching a story, or rewarded for generating partisan talking points? Does the publication redouble its efforts to enforce standards, or pride itself on the buzz? Do pundits and politicians learn to be highly skeptical of the news source and, if it doesn’t clean itself up, eventually shun it — or do they continue to cite it as if it’s totally legitimate?

The answers to date suggest that the GOP is perfectly happy to welcome into the tent an organization that is happy to fabricate “news” that supports conservative story lines. Andrew Sullivan today suggests that the Republican Party should take on Rush Limbaugh, but here’s an easier target: conservative “news” sites that don’t care about the truth. So where are the conservative politicians ready to do the job?