In practicing some shoddy journalism, Ben Shapiro of Breitbart News has done a great favor to journalism.
As noted here and many other places, on Feb. 7 Shapiro reported that Senate sources were reporting that they were informed that a possible reason that Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel hadn’t disclosed sources of foreign funding was that an organization “purportedly” named “Friends of Hamas” was on the list. That on Feb 14 received a debunking at the fingertips of Slate’s Dave Weigel and a further drubbing yesterday from Dan Friedman of the New York Daily News.
The crux: Friedman alleges that the whole “Friends of Hamas” notion started with a joke that he’d shared with a congressional aide.
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”?
The names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically. No one could take seriously the idea that organizations with those names existed — let alone that a former senator would speak to them.
Yet somehow the link between Hagel and a nonexistent organization surfaced in the media. Via whom? Anonymous sources, that’s whom.
In a strong denial today, Shapiro claims that Friedman’s explanation doesn’t match the truth. His source, he claims, didn’t get the notion from Friedman, but rather from three other sources. Of course, that defense doesn’t prove that Friedman still didn’t originate all this nonsense. Surely the joke could have etched a wide swatch on the Hill. “That’s how rumors work,” notes New York Magazine’s Joe Coscarelli.
Here you have it, journoprofs: If there’s any credibility to Friedman’s story—and it appears way more plausible than Shapiro’s—we have just completed a helpful experiment, tracing the passage of flimsy information through the newstream. And it’s ugly.
The episode should invigorate the skepticism of and depress the use of anonymous sources. It won’t, though.