Journalism 101

Hagel Tied To Junior League of Hezbollah

Ali Gharib on how the tale of Chuck Hagel's purported ties to the nonexistent "Friends of Hamas" got rolling.

Here's, as of yesterday, how the yarn about Chuck Hagel being tied to the "Friends of Hamas" group went: right-wing blogger Ben Shapiro of wrote a story a couple weeks ago that started: "Senate sources told Breitbart News exclusively that they have been informed that one of the reasons... 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, an unabashed advocate of forcible transfer of Palestinians out of Israel and the occupied territories, called up the White House and asked about the group, whereupon a spokesperson promptly hung up on him. That was enough for a headline that screamed, "SECRET HAGEL DONOR?: WHITE HOUSE SPOX DUCKS QUESTION ON 'FRIENDS OF HAMAS'." It caught fire from there: the National Review's Andrew MacCarthy discussed the rumor on Fox News, and even a Republican Senator—Rand Paul—gave the story some airtime on a national conservative radio show.

Hagel did eventually release those names of foreign funders to the Atlantic Council, which he served as chair of (Hagel has said he does not control and is not in a position to release the financials of other groups on whose boards he served). "Friends of Hamas," which Dave Weigel had already shown probably doesn't exist, wasn't on there. Here's why not: the whole thing turns out to have been a joke run horribly awry. The origins of the joke came to light in an opinion piece today—something of an essay, actually—by the New York Daily News' Dan Friedman. He explained:

On Feb. 6, I called a Republican aide on Capitol Hill with a question: Did Hagel’s Senate critics know of controversial groups that he had addressed? Hagel was in hot water for alleged hostility to Israel. So, I asked my source, had Hagel given a speech to, say, the “Junior League of Hezbollah, in France”? And: What about “Friends of Hamas”? The names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically. No one could take seriously the idea that organizations with those names existed—let alone that a former senator would speak to them.

Disturbingly, the person who took the line from the realm of absurd humor into that of damning rumor appears to have been none other than a Senate staffer. Who is Friedman's source (and, by the associative property, Shapiro's)? Like a good journalist, Friedman won't say. That's a shame, because his source is apparently not exactly on the level. Senate staffers sometimes lie to push their agendas, and all they need is willing and pliable "journalists" to push their lines of attack out to the public.

"The story as reported is correct," Shapiro, defending himself, told Friedman. "Whether the information I was given by the source is correct I am not sure." Only the story wasn't correct. (Shapiro has another post today deriding Friedman, and not addressing the veracity of the "Friends of Hamas" claim.) Right-wing blogs can complain all they want that the media isn't doing "reporting," but this ain't it either. As I've said before, and will I'm sure have to say again, good journalism isn't reporting what people tell you, it's reporting the truth. That means chasing down rumors before reporting on them. It is precisely when you aren't sure that the information you've been given is reliable—a stunning admission for a so-called journalist to make after releasing said information—that you you should double check it before publishing. And here's another piece of advice: be careful about making jokes to Senate staffers.