Media Ethics 101 from Breitbart.com

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 23 2013 11:07 AM

Media Ethics 101 from Breitbart.com

It's been a hard week for Breitbart.com, and all of the pain was self-inflicted. On February 7, the site ran a credulous story about a possible Hagel tie to a fake group, "Friends of Hamas." Other media ran with the story without checking it. Last week, I debunked FOH's existence, and this week, reporter Dan Friedman revealed that he probably invented the rumor, by accident, because he joked about "Friends of Hamas" to a duplicitous Hill staffer and the staffer repeated the name.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Most news organizations, upon being caught out like this, would issue corrections. Breitbart.com hasn't done that. Too bad. I really do like the site and refer to it when it's got a scoop. Who doesn't like to watch a bunch of writers challenge the mainstream media and win?

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Right now it's losing. Every day the site runs another report/editorial about how the story was "accurate and correctly caveated." Yesterday it was editor Joel Pollak's turn to explain the real scandal: That the media failed to chase more rumors about Chuck Hagel, because it was essentially working to confirm him. Like so much Dump Hagel needling, it's subjective, defining a position as controversial, and then shaming the media for not covering it as such. In 2007, Hagel called for "offering to re-open a consulate in Tehran ... not formal diplomatic relations ... but a Consulate ... to help encourage and facilitate people-to-people exchange." This suggestion was so scandalous that ... well, that no Republicans have cited any of this in their list of concerns with Hagel. Surely that's the media's fault.

Eventually, Pollak turns his focus to me:

Likewise, on December 17, Dave Weigel of Slate (falsely) accused the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol of making up Hagel’s infamous remark about the “Jewish lobby” on Capitol Hill. “The quote isn't merely redacted. It's partly fabricated,” Weigel claimed. However, as he later admitted, he had not checked the accuracy of the quote with the author who had recorded it. It was more important to attack Kristol than to ask what had Hagel said.

Let's spend some time with this, because it's equal parts misleading and guileless.

1) I did not "accuse Bill Kristol" of making up a quote. In a lede, I mentioned that Kristol had "become the public, famous face" of the Dump Hagel effort, and that he had posted "the text of a memo 'circulating widely on Capitol Hill.'" I asked whether the anonymous author of the memo, not Kristol, had fabricated something. Maybe it's a small distinction, but I think it's important, because the pipeline between anonymous Senate aides and Dump Hagel media outlets is part of the story, a factor that lets accusations filter into the media without a reporter getting hard proof first.

2) I didn't question whether the "Jewish lobby" quote was made up. The memo cited a book that included that Jewish lobby quote, but didn't include Hagel talking about the "political reality" in D.C. As I admitted, once my mistake was pointed out, the author of that book—Aaron David Miller—had recorded more than he printed, and that the recording included the whole quote. As a number of people pointed out, my lazy "gotcha" wasn't even aimed at the two words giving Hagel so much trouble.

3) As Pollak writes, I admitted that I fumbled the story. I published a full correction. That's typically what media outlets do when they stumble but want to retain the trust of their readers. So when is Breitbart.com going to do that with its "Friends of Hamas" stories? On February 20, I noticed that Shapiro's response to the Friedman article altered the sourcing of the initial claim. In his February 7 piece, he cited "Senate sources." On February 20, he cited "our Senate source."

I sent him this email:

In the Feb. 7 story you cite "Senate sources" for the Friends claim. In today's story you cite "Our Senate source." What happened to the other sources?

Shapiro hasn't emailed me back or said anything else in public. If he wants to move on, that's fine. If Pollak or Shapiro want to keep focused on "media bias," also fine. After this week, nothing they have to say about the media and its standards—or their own stories—passes the laugh test.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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