In the future, any media outlet preparing an investigative story on Alabama’s Roy Moore will take some very calibrated precautions, including: Don’t give this fellow too much time to respond to your allegations.
That’s one of the lessons from Thursday’s media escapade. Under the byline of Aaron Klein, Breitbart News published something of a pre-buttal from Moore to a then-pending investigation in The Post regarding Moore’s conduct with girls. Here’s the headline: “After Endorsing Democrat in Alabama, Bezos’s Washington Post Plans to Hit Roy Moore with Allegations of Inappropriate Relations with Teenagers; Judge Claims Smear Campaign.” Moore is the Republican nominee for an Alabama U.S. Senate seat.
Prominently featured in the Breitbart story is this denial from Moore: “’These allegations are completely false and are a desperate political attack by the National Democrat Party and the Washington Post on this campaign,’ Moore said in a statement obtained by Breitbart News.” How did Breitbart get its arms around The Post’s allegations? Here’s how it explains that matter: “Breitbart News obtained details of the forthcoming Post story from the newspaper’s letter detailing the allegations sent to Moore’s campaign for comment.” For context on just how Breitbart may have obtained such material, consider some of the site’s coverage:
Breitbart executive Stephen K. Bannon was an enthusiastic supporter of Moore in his primary battle.
Klein posted a self-congratulatory tweet about his piece:
A better formulation: “Breitbart hypes Washington Post piece on Roy Moore.” (Disclosure: The Erik Wemple Blog works on the opinion side of The Post and not the news side, which produced the Moore scoop. Meaning, this blog has no authority to thank Breitbart on behalf of The Post. It is merely a headline.)
The Post story‘s central allegation is that in 1979, Moore, then a 32-year-old assistant district attorney, had two meetings with then-14-year-old Leigh Corfman. Per the story, “he picked her up around the corner from her house in Gadsden, drove her about 30 minutes to his home in the woods, told her how pretty she was and kissed her. On a second visit, she says, he took off her shirt and pants and removed his clothes. He touched her over her bra and underpants, she says, and guided her hand to touch him over his underwear.” Under the bylines of Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard and Alice Crites, the piece presents accounts from three other women who were between 16 and 18 while Moore was in his 30s. He allegedly asked them out on dates.
Although Breitbart’s pre-publication work in this case amounts to mere gimmickry, things aren’t always so harmless. Over the summer, Breitbart got ahold of email traffic from New York Times reporter Coral Davenport as she sought sources for a story on the Environmental Protection Agency. Breitbart published the names of employees who were contacted through Davenport’s efforts.
Steven Ginsberg, national editor for The Post, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that the episode with Breitbart will “definitely inform how we deal with the Moore campaign and make us consider how we deal with other campaigns, though we won’t necessarily hold what the Moore campaign has done against them.” That said: “A story like this raises extremely serious allegations and whenever we’re in that area, we want to give people as much chance as possible,” says Ginsberg. “I don’t recall anything like this on a story that I’ve worked on.”
Though Moore attributes the story to an attack from the “National Democrat Party,” McCrummen cites a source far from Washington. She was in the second week of reporting on Moore’s supporters in Alabama, she tells this blog, when she had a two- or three-hour conversation with someone who mentioned this newsworthy matter. “It was a random encounter,” recalls McCrummen. “The notion that we were sought out is completely untrue.”