Cliven Bundy is quite a character. The family of the Nevada cattle rancher-vigilante is currently at the center of an armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, which is merely the latest episode in a long history of clashes with the federal government.
But that doesn’t mean every crazy thing Bundy supposedly said or did actually happened — such as, say, suing President Obama in 2014 for allegedly threatening Donald Trump. BuzzFeed reported Monday morning that Bundy filed a “bizarre, hand-written lawsuit” against the president. The suit alleged that Obama “covertly threatened Donald Trump with building code violations, property tax fraud, illegally operating offshore tax havens for betting with federal indictments unless he shuts up and stops the Birther movement.”
That would, indeed, be bizarre — so bizarre, in fact, that it probably should have been treated with juuust a bit more skepticism. The lawsuit does exist, but the person listed as Bundy’s co-plaintiff is a guy named David Rothrock, a convicted rapist who is in prison in Pennsylvania.
Rothrock has a history of filing wacked-out legal actions and affixing the names of famous people to them. In 2014, he put Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s name on a motion seeking an injunction that would have prevented Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles from playing. Rothrock claimed to be a performance-enhancing drug dealer who supplied Bortles with steroids and human growth hormone. He accused Bortles of threatening to frame him for rape and said the former University of Central Florida standout is HIV-positive.
Also in 2014, Rothrock filed a motion seeking a restraining order against mobsters John Gotti Jr. and Joseph Ligambi. His “partner” in that case was “Skinny” Joey Merlino, another mob boss.
The Bundy, Bridgewater and Merlino actions were all filed from prison within a few days of each other. A side-by-side comparison of the Bundy and Bridgewater documents, which are readily available online, shows similar handwriting and — rather suspiciously — the same mailing address for both the rancher and the football star: P.O. Box 1488. The P.O. box number appears to be a reference to white supremacist symbols.
In other words, there is plenty of reason to question whether Bundy actually had anything to do with the lawsuit against Obama. (Efforts to reach Bundy on Monday afternoon were unsuccessful.)
But BuzzFeed’s original story, published at 11:04 a.m. Monday, stated as fact that the suit’s allegations came from Bundy. The headline read: “Cliven Bundy Claims Obama Threatened Donald Trump In Bizarre Hand-Written Lawsuit.”
An update at 11:42 changed the headline: “Bizarre Lawsuit Claims Cliven Bundy Accused Obama Of Threatening Donald Trump.”
At 11:51, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith tweeted a correction.
Correction: The insane Obama lawsuit is in Bundy's name, but no evidence Bundy was actually involved https://t.co/MYH59ngCxY
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) January 4, 2016
And at 12:17, the headline was changed again: “Bizarre Lawsuit Claims Without Evidence That Cliven Bundy Accused Obama Of Threatening Donald Trump.” BuzzFeed also added a note: “This post has been updated to reflect that Bundy was named as a plaintiff in the suit by another person.”
This is a good time for the news media to remember that wild claims about the Republican presidential front-runner (or America’s favorite gun-toting rancher — or anyone) should be checked thoroughly. The notion that Bundy would file a loony lawsuit against Obama seemed plausible, so it was published as fact before it should have been. We haven’t seen a perfect analogue in Trump coverage yet, but it’s not hard to imagine one in the near future. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the news media rushed to judgment on Trump's use of “schlonged.”
Part of this is because the Trump campaign — and random citizens such as Bundy — take hands-off approaches to the media. While most politicians will have a spokesman fight tooth and nail over the details of stories written about their boss, Team Trump lets the media write what they want and then Trump himself bashes the media on Twitter and on the stump — or sends a handwritten nastygram.
Another part of this is that both Trump and Bundy "click" very well online. A story involving both of them and a bizarre lawsuit is almost too much to resist.
But just because the story is irresistible and the subject of a story doesn't engage directly doesn't mean they don't deserve due diligence.