Dan Friedman of the New York Daily News admitted to being the unwitting source of a false rumor -- promoted first by Breitbart.com editor Ben Shapiro -- that Defense Secretary nominee Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) had been paid to give a speech to the organization "Friends of Hamas." In a piece published Tuesday, Friedman explored his own inadvertent role in creating and propagating the rumor, as well as what the story says about our current media environment and its readiness to exploit half truths and outright lies in pursuit of political agendas.
Friedman wrote on Tuesday, "I became part of an inadvertent demonstration of how quickly partisan agendas and the Internet can transform an obvious joke into a Washington talking point used by senators and presidential wannabes."
On February 6, said Friedman, he phoned a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill to ask about rumors that Hagel, whose nomination has been filibustered by Senate Republicans, had addressed "controversial" groups.
Republican skepticism was centered around Hagel's supposed hostility to Israel. "So, I asked my source," Friedman said, "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," he wrote.
When Friedman didn't hear back from the source, he followed up with a snarky email, "Did he get $25K speaking fee from Friends of Hamas?”
Hearing nothing from the source, he let the story drop.
The next day, conservative website Breitbart.com blasted the headline, "SECRET HAGEL DONOR?: WHITE HOUSE SPOX DUCKS QUESTION ON ‘FRIENDS OF HAMAS.’”
Breitbart.com editor Ben Shapiro wrote, "On Thursday, Senate sources told Breitbart News exclusively that they have been informed 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.’”
When Shapiro called the White House for comment, they hung up on him, which he took as confirmation. Shapiro ran the story and tweeted the link out to his more than 40,000 Twitter followers, touching off a right-wing media avalanche. The story was picked up by the National Review, RedState.org and other conservative media outlets. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee posited that this would be the end of Hagel's nomination if the rumors were true.
The scandal began to gather steam, but it was only days later that Friedman contacted his source on the Hill again, asking if he had passed on information to Breitbart. No, the staffer said, but he had spoken about it to other people.
Shapiro, for his part, only gradually began to admit that perhaps Friends of Hamas did not exist. But, he said to Friedman, "his story used 'very, very specific language' to avoid flatly claiming it did."
“The story as reported is correct," Shapiro insisted. "Whether the information I was given by the source is correct I am not sure.”
As the facts of the story spread, many are having a laugh at the expense of Shapiro and the right-wing media outlets that ran with the story. A satirical Friends of Hamas website was erected by Gawker's Max Read, featuring Shapiro's face, dancing images of anime characters and the slogan, "LOL nothing matters."
Shapiro responded to Friedman's Daily News piece by calling Friedman a "hack," and writing, "Welcome to the Obama media, where protecting Chuck Hagel and attacking any media who question Hagel is par for the course."
"The story Breitbart News ran originally was accurate and clearly caveated [sic]," Shapiro said. "Dan Friedman was not the source of the information given to Breitbart News. But the media is already jumping to help Friedman push his narrative. It’s all part of the mission to protect Barack Obama and Chuck Hagel."