A note to staff from Editor in Chief Cesca Antonelli strikes some of the same notes, pledging to strengthen “policies and processes.” According to the top editor, the retraction comes at the end of protracted review: “We received several complaints about our story. We took the complaints seriously and have spent the last few weeks reviewing our coverage and our editorial processes. We addressed these issues with all staff involved. The last of our review meetings was conducted yesterday afternoon.”
Perhaps Antonelli was so specific about the review meetings because of the quirky timing of the retraction. On Thursday afternoon, attorney Ted Frank, head of litigation at the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute, posted the results of a FOIA request that he and the institute’s Frank Bednarz had submitted:
David Peikin, director of corporate communications for Bloomberg Industry Group, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that the retraction’s timing was “unrelated” to the FOIA release.
The FOIA documents raised fresh questions about how Bloomberg Law reporter Ben Penn went about researching the story. The correspondence shows that Penn was fully aware that his story could upend the career of a new Labor appointee. He’d found a Facebook thread from 2016 written by Olson, a lawyer who’d recently started at the agency’s wage and hour division. As Penn wrote to Labor public affairs officials on Aug. 30, the Facebook material “references two anti-Semitic tropes.”
And so he ripped away: “If DOL was previously aware of it, did this post raise any flags inside the administration about whether he is fit for government service?” wrote Penn.
As everyone now knows, the red flags were pretty well confined to the offices of Bloomberg Law. On Sept. 3, the outlet published the fruits of Penn’s inquiry under the headline, “Trump Labor Aide Quits After anti-Semitic Facebook Posts Surface.” The part about quitting was 100 percent accurate, as a Labor statement confirmed: “Today, the Department of Labor accepted the resignation of Leif Olson effective immediately.” That statement arrived at Penn’s inbox within four hours of his inquiry. (Olson was later reinstated.)
And the part about anti-Semitic Facebook posts? Well, let’s just say that haste and shoddy journalism teamed up to create a disaster. Olson’s dreaded Facebook post wasn’t “anti-Semitic” in any way. In fact, it mocked the hateful thought patterns and conspiracy theories of anti-Semites, making it an example of anti-anti-Semitism. Bloomberg Law had somehow failed to pick up on the satire in its initial reading of the social media activity and so, apparently, did the Department of Labor.
A close reading of the material yielded the conclusion that Olson was engaging in exalted satire, though there was more to the Facebooking. Subsequent messages made it even plainer that there was nothing straight-faced about Olson’s observations about Jews. “I’m trying to figure out the correct response to epic sarcasm,” reads a later comment. That’s why Frank alleges that Penn “truncated” the Facebook thread in his inquiry to Labor, to the detriment of journalism.
At one point in the email, Penn notes the two “anti-Semitic tropes.” At another point, Penn asks, “Does the Labor Department find comments that are disparaging to Jews acceptable for a senior appointee?” The latter formulation clearly misportrays the satirical thoughts in Olson’s Facebook postings and could well have prejudiced the Labor Department’s examination of the material, or possible examination of the material.
Whatever the sequence of events, the episode underscores the power wielded by journalists even before they publish something. Media outlets typically vet story drafts more carefully than they do emails seeking comment for a story. In circumstances where the material can derail a career, though, such communications merit a full-on scrubdown.
In this particular case, Bloomberg Law found itself in a strange spot: Its inquiry alone appeared to have prompted the resignation of Olson. To judge from the story, Penn spoke with Olson about the situation:
“It was sarcastic criticism of the alt-right’s conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic positions,” Olson said in an interview. He declined to respond to other questions about his resignation and the Facebook post, including whether he wishes to apologize or if he regrets his actions. The remark remained on his Facebook feed through the end of August.
The Erik Wemple Blog asked Bloomberg Law when this interview took place. The timing matters because Olson put Bloomberg Law on notice that the posts were sarcastic. According to an informed source, Olson shared this information with Penn on Saturday, Aug. 31, meaning that Bloomberg Law had a few days before the Sept. 3 publication date to review the Facebook material for satire. Somehow it just proceeded with its judgment that the posts were anti-Semitic.
Let’s hope that review of procedures and processes covers Labor Day weekend at Bloomberg Law.
On Reason, Josh Blackman wrote Thursday that Bloomberg Law should retract the whole story. Prescient!
Even after the pushback that greeted the original story, Bloomberg Law published changes unequal to the harm done. Before the retraction, for example, there were bullet points atop the story that read like this:
The second bullet point — about a “reference that Jewish media ‘protects their own’” — might have left the skimming reader with the impression that Olson wasn’t kidding about this stuff.
Reached on the phone on Friday, Olson shared few words.
Has he sent any lawyer letters to Bloomberg Law? “No,” he responded.
Was he pondering legal action? “No comment.”
Had he discussed the situation with a lawyer? “No comment.”
How does he feel Bloomberg Law handled the situation? “No comment.”
Our first question asked whether he’d received an apology. He said no. That has changed, thankfully.