The U.S. Labor Department headquarters on Aug. 29. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Media critic

Sarcasm often withers in electronic communications. It gets transmitted without tone of voice and other key signals. Sometimes it’s undetectable.

None of those considerations, however, provides an excuse for Bloomberg Law reporter Ben Penn, who on Tuesday wrote a story regarding the “anti-Semitic Facebook posts” of short-lived Labor Department appointee Leif Olson. Those “anti-Semitic” posts are plainly sarcastic, rendering them not anti-Semitic.

Bloomberg Law, however, is clinging to its interpretations. “We stand behind our reporting,” noted a statement from David Peikin, director of corporate communications for Bloomberg Industry Group.

Here’s what happened: By his own account, Penn presented to the Labor Department a Facebook post from August 2016 in which Olson wrote about the outcome of a primary challenge to then-Rep. Paul D. Ryan. The challenger was Paul Nehlen, identified by Vox.com as a “mini Trump” and a white supremacist. Ryan destroyed Nehlen in the primary.

Here’s the Facebook post in question, which makes clear Olson’s contempt for the dark forces aligned with Nehlen (click to enlarge):

The tone of Olson’s posting is asserted from the very top, confirmed by the reference to an “emasculating 70-point victory” and driven home by his faux-conspiracy chatter in the comments below. Yet Penn felt that the material merited a look from Olson’s employer:

As Penn’s story notes, the 43-year-old Olson started at Labor on Aug. 12 and was cleared by the White House. “He was part of a team of political appointees working to finish a series of deregulatory actions that are pivotal to the White House employment agenda,” notes Penn. “They include rules that would narrow corporations’ shared liability with affiliated companies and clarify time-and-a-half overtime pay calculations.”

Here’s the exchange that apparently prompted Bloomberg Law’s inquiry to the Labor Department, as abridged by Penn:

Olson’s initial post about Ryan prompted another Facebook user to reply, “He’s a neo-con, too, you know.”

Olson replied, “No he’s not. Neo-cons are all Upper East Side Zionists who don’t golf on Saturday if you know what I mean.”

The same commenter then replied, “That’s what I meant. He’s a Jew. Everyone knows that.”

Olson at 12:46 a.m. Houston time wrote the following about the apparent Jewish faith of Ryan, an observant Catholic: “It must be true because I’ve never seen the Lamestream Media report it, and you know they protect their own.”

A review of a decade of Olson’s Facebook posts shows that he usually promotes his Christian faith and conservative views. The Paul Ryan exchange appears to be the only appeal to Jewish stereotypes.

Bolding inserted to highlight a needed edit: It’s the only satirical, mocking appeal that denounces Jewish stereotypes. The Facebook excerpt in the Bloomberg Law article provides all the clues necessary to determine that Olson was joking, though additional messages in the thread furnish even greater substantiation.

The story quotes Olson himself as saying, “It was sarcastic criticism of the alt-right’s conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic positions.”

At the same time, it quotes Jake Hyman, a spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL): “The post in question is clearly anti-Semitic, and if it does indeed belong to Leif Olson of the U.S. Labor Department, we call on him to apologize and affirm that he no longer harbors such virulently hateful views.” The Erik Wemple Blog checked with the ADL on Tuesday afternoon to see if it wished to revise its evaluation in light of social media’s verdict on the Olson post. It did indeed. “We appreciate Mr. Olson’s clarification that he intended to be sarcastic with his posts and accept his explanation of the content in question,” said Hyman.

Yet Bloomberg Law is sticking with its original formulation, including its reputation-damaging headline: “Trump Labor Aide Quits After Anti-Semitic Facebook Posts Surface.” Those posts aren’t anti-Semitic if they’re written with satirical anti-anti-Semitic sentiment. Here are other segments of the story that require correction or retraction in light of Olson’s tone:

A recently appointed Trump Labor Department official with a history of advancing controversial conservative and faith-based causes in court has resigned after revelations that he wrote a 2016 Facebook post suggesting the Jewish-controlled media “protects their own.”

And:

Olson, an unsuccessful GOP candidate in 2012 for a Texas district court judgeship, fired off a series of late-night posts on his personal Facebook page three years ago that started as a sarcastic quip about former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s blowout primary victory. They then devolved into an exchange referencing two anti-Semitic tropes: that Jews control the media and that they look out for members of their own faith.

Here, Penn appears to be drawing a line between sarcasm about Ryan’s primary victory and allegedly straight-faced comments about Jewish control of the media. The Erik Wemple Blog espies no such separation.

The article includes six paragraphs about Trump White House troubles with vetting staffers. But backstory on vetting failures doesn’t belong in a story that reveals no vetting failure.

Bloomberg Law sees no problem within the four corners of its story. “We contacted the White House and the Department of Labor asking for comment on Mr. Olson’s Facebook posts. Within four hours, the Department of Labor responded that Mr. Olson had resigned,” noted Peikin. We won’t dispute that sequence. Clearly more needs to be revealed about the events leading to Olson’s resignation, which may or may not have been forced by the Bloomberg Law request.

Those circumstances notwithstanding, the story continues to characterize Olson’s post as containing anti-Semitic material. That’s true only if you willfully ignore the tone and intent of the post. Retraction time.