If 2013 was the year of "the Internet falling for bogus stories," 2014 is starting off with green shoots of hope. Some background:
Two and a half long months ago, reporter Charles C. Johnson teamed up with Joel Gilbert—a birther director who previously claimed that Barack Obama was sired by a communist poet—and talked to a few Newark residents who hated Cory Booker. The resulting Daily Caller story, titled "Neighbors: Cory Booker Never Lived in Newark," was buzzy enough to generate questions for the New Jersey U.S. Senate candidate in his final press avails before he won the special election. Steve Lonegan, Booker's opponent, even held a press conference to draw attention to the claims. It didn't take much for BuzzFeed's Ruby Cramer to prove that the article was wrong, or to later prove that Johnson had previously (and without declaring it in his journalism) done research for an anti-Booker PAC.
Would that mean "fewer Charles Johnson articles in the Daily Caller"? No, of course not. Three days into the new year, Johnson appeared again in the Daily Caller with an apparent scoop about David D. Kirkpatrick, the New York Times Cairo bureau chief who'd just filed a lengthy corrective history of the 9/11/12 Benghazi attacks. Never mind Kirkpatrick's reporting; Johnson proved that Kirkpatrick had "show[ed] his naked body to all" while a student at Princeton 25 years ago. The story made two claims:
- Kirkpatrick was arrested for "lewd conduct" in 1989, after posing nude on a bridge for a student's art project.
- Kirkpatrick was photographed streaking through campus.
- Kirkpatrick "even posed for Playgirl." Here, I'll just quote from the article:
"Kinky" Kirkpatrick had a "rather unusual habit of disrobing for photographers in public places," reported The Daily Princetonian in January 22, 1990.
"I've never been afraid to drop trou when it seemed like the right thing to do," Kirkpatrick said of a Playgirl photo shoot he had completed. "I just feel more comfortable in the buff."
The Daily Caller was unable to find a copy of the February 1990 issue of Playgirl to confirm that Kirkpatrick appears in the buff but did obtain a photo of Kirkpatrick streaking.
These paragraphs have been removed from Johnson's story, and for a pretty good reason. There was no "Daily Princetonian" article alleging a Kirkpatrick sideline in porn. The story appeared in a spoof issue, the Princeton Daily News. Two former student reporters for the paper confirmed that the paper would occasionally run a parody section, and that the Kirkpatrick "Playgirl" story was a riff on the well-known nudity arrest of a few months earlier. I mean, look, here was the paper's front page:
How did this sourcing make it into the original story? Tim Cavanaugh, the Daily Caller's executive editor, explains:
Kirkpatrick was busted for lewdness in 1989, as reported in straight news stories in Town Topics, the Trentonian and the Princeton student papers. The Princeton student paper also wrote a series of spoofs mocking that, which unfortunately Charles fell for 24 years later. I neglected to examine the spoof stories prior to publication. When I did so [on Saturday] they were clearly fabrications. Kirkpatrick has confirmed the accuracy of the story in its corrected form.
Indeed, the first embarrassing fact in the story was true. As was the second: Kirkpatrick did participate in an annual Princeton tradition of running nude through campus when the first snow of the year fell. It was an all-genders stunt that wouldn't be banned for another decade. Silly, maybe, but socially accepted at the time.
So ... what do college stunts during the George H.W. Bush administration says about Kirkpatrick's journalism now? Johnson suggests that it proves Kirkpatrick was a "prominent campus progressive and activist," and only later struck a pose as a moderate. And Johnson's standard for "proof" is quite high, if we're to read his correction on the "Playgirl" stuff:
An earlier version of this article reported claims made in a Princeton student newspaper article that appears to have been fabricated. Kirkpatrick denies the reporting from the Daily Princetonian and The Daily Caller has not been able to confirm it independently.
"Appears"? "Not able to confirm?" It was a parody newspaper that ran a story about Elvis appearing on campus.
UPDATE: Johnson actually responded before I wrote this -- his response was lost in a Gmail wormhole. I'll post it now:
The error was entirely mine and an honest mistake.
Every so often I get it wrong and I did so here. I honestly had no idea that the January 22, 1980 issue of the Daily Princetonian was a joke issue as I only got the article that mentioned Kirkpatrick and didn't have the context. Frankly college students are up to weird things and I thought that someone who was arrested for being nude in a public place would be the type to pose nude for Playgirl but I was wrong.
I am rather notorious for not understanding sarcasm or satire and I am deeply embarrassed by the whole article. I apologized to Mr. Kirkpatrick when I finally got through to him and pushed for a correction which was given to him. The honest mistake is entirely mine.
As an aside some people are arguing that I was trying to discredit Kirkpatrick's controversial reporting on the Benghazi attack which is false. I simply wrote up the story because his name was in the news. I have no idea if what he reported was accurate.
We all make mistakes. On Twitter, Johnson has subsequently said he waited three days for Kirkpatrick to respond, and ran this after hearing nothing. I just think a different trust-but-verify approach to this, or to the Newark story, might have saved face.