Conservative activist Ed Whelan just demonstrated why the so-called “fake news” industry employs editors.
With a showman’s elan, Whelan, the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a blogger for the National Review Online, posted tweets earlier this week promising a breakthrough in the national controversy over the nomination of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. According to a Christine Blasey Ford, a woman who moved in the same high-school social circles as Kavanaugh, he sexually assaulted her more than three decades ago at a party in Maryland. Kavanaugh strongly denies the accusation, and the Senate Judiciary Committee this week has struggled with just how it will address the matter.
Meanwhile, Whelan strutted with confidence:
So just what was that compelling evidence? Um, it was a series of suppositions involving floor plans, a yearbook and web mapping, not to mention a pinch of bonkers. The Erik Wemple Blog won’t display the entire product here, because of the outrageous core of Whelan’s theory — namely, that a Georgetown Prep classmate of Kavanaugh’s could easily be the person who did this awful thing. Evidence included a side-by-side photo presentation of Kavanaugh and this other fellow, to demonstrate how they resembled each other; a map showcasing the neighborhood and proximity of key figures; a floor plan of the house, to show how it resembled the scenario laid out by Ford; and the fact that this other guy was also a friend of Mark Judge, the Georgetown Prep student who was identified by Ford as a witness to the alleged sexual assault.
You read correctly: Whelan actually named and showed pictures of an apparent Kavanaugh doppelganger who — who knows? — could have been mistaken by the accuser in this case. In his pursuit of his hot story, he clearly got a bit excited:
Journalists know this feeling — a promising lead, apparently corroborating evidence, a big controversy. They also know another thing, namely that before publishing their blockbuster, it’s helpful to check with the other side — the person they’re accusing of confusion. Did Whelan take that step with Ford and her lawyers?
“No, he did not,” responds Debra Katz, a lawyer for Ford.
And so, Ford was forced to issue a statement after Whelan’s tweetstorm: “I knew them both, and socialized with” the classmate so scandalously named in the thread. “There is zero chance that I would confuse them.”
Following a tremendous backlash, Whelan on Friday morning posted this tweet, which is refreshingly free of defamatory and flimsy suggestions:
Whelan’s mea culpa is a bit disingenuous. There was no way, after all, that he could have presented his wacko case without naming and showing a photograph of this mysterious doppelganger. Such was the collateral damage of his desperate attempt to end the Kavanaugh controversy. Too good to check, as they say in journalism circles.
We asked Whelan several questions about the matter. He replied with a link to the apology tweet, and this: “I do not have an editor for my tweets. I have not received any litigation threats.” He has taken down the offending Twitter thread.
Did Whelan defame the doppelganger classmate? Well, flimsier cases have been presented in courts of law. The thrust of the Whelan tweets was that a sexual assault by this doppelganger — who was generously identified in the post — was a more plausible scenario than the one alleged by Ford, which is that Kavanaugh was the assailant.
Whelan’s thread included a disclaimer tweet saying, “To be clear, I have no idea what, if anything, did or did not happen in that bedroom at the top of the stairs, and I therefore do not state, imply or insinuate that [doppelganger] or anyone else committed the sexual assault that Ford alleges.” Despite those sentiments, Whelan appeared content to leave Twitter users with the impression that this other fellow could have committed the crime alleged. “A disclaimer doesn’t get one off the hook,” says Clay Calvert, a University of Florida professor frequently consulted by the Erik Wemple Blog.
A little background on Whelan: He is a friend of Kavanaugh and Leonard Leo, who as head of the Federalist Society plays a key role in developing shortlists of potential conservative nominees for the Supreme Court. Whelan’s Twitter feed reveals a single-minded determination to squeak Kavanaugh through confirmation, as it elevates various developments that favor the federal judge:
Yet such favorable developments for Kavanaugh clearly weren’t sufficient for Whelan. So he apparently decided to construct his own. That’s fake news, without the quotation marks.