A woman whose name appeared on what looked like a legal complaint against Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer has told multiple news outlets that her signature was forged and that she was not sexually harassed by the New York Democrat.
Schumer has asked Capitol Police to investigate the origin of a document that was submitted to several news organizations in what was presumably an effort to trick journalists into publishing a false accusation that would smear Schumer and ultimately embarrass the media, once the hoax was revealed.
Reporters uncovered the deception before publication, but the episode is further proof that political operatives are working hard to discredit the media by elaborate means.
Last month, The Washington Post reported that a woman working for Project Veritas, the conservative activist group run by James O'Keefe, approached the newspaper with a bogus claim that she had an abortion at age 15 after U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore impregnated her.
In a follow-up article, The Post revealed that the woman had been part of a months-long campaign to infiltrate the newspaper and other outlets. She joined two dozen networking groups related to either journalism or left-leaning politics and even showed up at least twice at gatherings for departing Post staffers.
In a November New Yorker piece, journalist Ronan Farrow chronicled the experience of New York magazine reporter Ben Wallace with a woman who claimed to be a victim of harassment by Harvey Weinstein but turned out to be an undercover operative working for a company hired by Weinstein himself.
In July, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow said on her show that “somebody for some reason appears to be shopping a fairly convincing fake NSA document that purports to directly implicate somebody from the Trump campaign in working with the Russians on their attack on the election. It is a forgery.”
The source of the phony complaint against Schumer is unclear, but conservative activist Mike Cernovich referenced the document on Twitter on Monday.
“If what I'm looking at is what it seems to be, this is a story bigger than John Conyers,” Cernovich wrote, referring to the Michigan Democrat who resigned from the House last week amid sexual harassment accusations.
Cernovich prompted Conyers's fall when he obtained a legitimate document detailing a financial settlement between Conyers and a former aide, and shared the document with BuzzFeed, which published a report on the deal.
“I have legal documents, exact dates, same as with Conyers,” Cernovich tweeted on Monday.
Cernovich is emblematic of the media's challenge: Though he sometimes pushes baseless conspiracy theories, Cernovich occasionally produces real scoops. That means journalists cannot instantly dismiss his claims but also must be on guard against hoaxes.
Fact-checking is central to journalistic rigor, but in the current political climate, reporters have to consider the possibility that their sources might be not merely mistaken but actively trying to mislead.