It began with a casual, half-in-jest email, the kind that reporters send to sources thousands of times a day on Capitol Hill when they want a little more clarity in answer to a question.
It ended with a cringe-worthy moment of embarrassment for the feedback loop of the Republican Party and the right-wing press that emboldens them.
Two weeks ago, two dozen Republicans in the Senate sent a public letter to Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel, demanding he disclose what, if any, foreign entities had paid him for any work he had done since leaving the Senate. The letter came as rumors were flying around Washington that Hagel had been paid speaking fees by some foreign entities, particularly ones antagonistic towards American interests—and even that Hagel had appeared before some of these groups.
Did the letter itself, in its formal Senate-ese, spark the rumors, or was it meant to trap Hagel in a lie? Dan Friedman, a reporter with the Washington bureau of the New York Daily News, was resolved to find out, so he called a bunch of his Capitol Hill GOP sources to see if they knew anything. As he explained in an op-ed this morning, he started by throwing out questions. Did any of these sources have evidence that Hagel was speaking before any anti-American groups? Did he once colloquy with say, “Friends of Hamas” (the name was a winking reference to those ridiculous-sounding outside spending groups that pop up around election season)? Or did he go chin-wagging before the “Junior League of Hezbollah”? Those two organizations were, Friedman thought when he suggested them to a Senate GOP staffer, an obvious joke, outrageous examples meant only to clarify exactly what he was looking for.
And so it was with shock the next day that he saw a headline on the right-wing website Breitbart.com: an article asserting that Hagel had received funding from a group called “Friends of Hamas.”
“It was a kind of holy shit moment,” Friedman says by phone from D.C.
What Friedman quickly pieced together was that the unidentified Senate staffer he spoke with had passed along his query as if it were fact to another news outlet. The staffer denied it, saying he merely asked around about Friedman’s query, and that the “rumor” must have reached the reporter that way.
“I don’t believe him,” Friedman now says. “I think he is completely lying. He is trying to cover his tracks and he is embarrassed.”
“I was seeking information and I was operating under the assumption that he would not tell people,” Friedman adds. “Because this is someone I have dealt with in the past and that is the understanding we have. If he was confused about it he could have asked me. I would have told him it was a hypothetical. Instead, he passed it along to someone who didn’t care if it was true or not.”
“It was a kind of holy shit moment.”
And, he went on, if his source did pass it along, “I thought he would at least pass it along to Roll Call or Politico or The Washington Post, and not somebody who has worked for an ideological conservative website that is working to spread rumors about Hagel.”
For his part, the reporter for Breitbart.com, Ben Shapiro (who has yet to respond to a request for comment) told Friedman that he only reported what he knew—that “Senate sources told Breitbart News exclusively that they have been informed that one of the reasons that President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has not turned over requested documents on his sources of foreign funding is that one of the names listed is a group purportedly called “Friends of Hamas.”’ Shapiro added that his Senate source denies that Friedman is the source of the rumor, and that the White House hung up on him when he asked for comment, apparent proof that there must be some truth to it.
Friedman considers that journalistic malpractice. “The standard is not, Is it true that someone told me something that could be complete bullshit?” Friedman said. “The standard is, Is what [a source] told me true? And [Shapiro] almost cheerfully acknowledged that he didn’t care about that distinction. He doesn’t view himself as responsible for checking if this was an actual thing.”
The lesson in all of this, Friedman says, is that the next time he sends a jokey email to a flack, to “add giant flags and capital letters that say, ‘THIS IS NOT A REAL THING. And if you are passing this along to a conservative blogger, please don’t.’”
“I thought that I could strike a lighter tone than I probably should have, especially with something this high profile,” he says. “There are just a lot of people out there who don’t care if something is true, who just throw it into print.”