Daily News reporter explains how he inadvertently created the myth that Chuck Hagel spoke to a non-existent group.
BY DAN FRIEDMAN / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
FEBRUARY 19, 2013
Daily News reporter Dan Friedman recounts the origin of a rumor he unwittingly started about Chuck Hagel (pictured) and uncovers the anatomy of an Internet rumor along the way.
WASHINGTON — The revelation could have doomed President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense: He gave a paid speech to a group called “Friends of Hamas.”
Fortunately for Hagel, this claim, which galloped across the Internet, was bogus. I know, because I was the unwitting source.
In the process, 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.
Here’s what happened: When rumors swirled that Hagel received speaking fees from controversial organizations, I attempted to check them out.
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.
Writer Dan Friedman posed the hypothetical query that circulated throughout conservative channels and put Hagel in hot water.
Or so I thought.
The aide promised to get back to me. I followed up with an e-mail, as a reminder: “Did he get $25K speaking fee from Friends of Hamas?” I asked.
The source never responded, and I moved on.
I couldn’t have imagined what would happen next. On Feb. 7, the conservative web site Breitbart.com screamed this headline:
The story read: “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.’”
The author, Ben Shapiro, wrote that a White House spokesman hung up on him when he called for comment. That went in the story — to buttress the assertion that the White House didn’t deny the claim.
Breitbart.com used the headline ‘Secret Hagel Donor?: White House Spox Ducks Question on ‘Friends of Hamas’ for piece on potential Chuck Hagel scandal.
Shapiro tweeted the link to his nearly 40,000 Twitter followers. Blogs like RedState.com and the National Review’s The Corner linked to it. In Israel, Mike Huckabee said “rumors of Chuck Hagel’s having received funds from Friends of Hamas,” would, if true, “disqualify him.”
Somehow, I was not aware of the firestorm until Sunday, when I glanced at my phone and saw a Slate.com story raising big doubts whether “Friends of Hamas” even exists.
On Monday, I reached my source. The person denied sharing my query with Breitbart but admitted the chance of having mentioned it to others. Since the source knew we spoke under a standard that my questions weren’t for sharing, that’s a problem.
But there was another fail-safe. Since the “Friends of Hamas” speech was imaginary, it was not like another reporter could confirm it, right?
Not quite. Reached Tuesday, Shapiro acknowledged “Friends of Hamas” might not exist. But he said his story used “very, very specific language” to avoid flatly claiming it did.
“The story as reported is correct. Whether the information I was given by the source is correct I am not sure,” he said.
I am, it seems, the creator of the Friends of Hamas myth. Doing my job, I erred in counting on confidentiality and the understanding that my example was farcical — and by assuming no one would print an unchecked rumor.
If anyone didn’t know already: Partisan agendas, Internet reporting and old-fashioned carelessness can move complete crocks fast. If you see a story on Hagel addressing the Junior League of Hezbollah, that’s fake too.
Friedman is a reporter in the Daily News’ Washington bureau.
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