On February 7, Ben Shapiro, a contributor to conservative media outlet Breitbart.com, published an incendiary story linking President Obama's secretary of defense nominee, Chuck Hagel, to an organization known as "Friends of Hamas." The story elicited predictably fervid responses from various conservative pundits and politicians, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and former Arkansas Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, both of whom relied on the article's allegations in their own interviews. Famously conservative sources RedState.org and the National Review also pursued the story. The assertions complicated the already messy nomination process, especially considering the Hagel anti-Israel narrative pushed by such conservatives as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
There's just one problem: Friends of Hamas doesn't even exist.
Apparently, Daily News reporter Dan Friedman wrote that he was interested in knowing the groups that paid Hagel for speaking tours and concocted the exaggeratedly-named Friends of Hamas as a hypothetical group. However, Breitbart.com, without expending even minimal fact-checking resources, perpetuated the false link between Hagel and the nonexistent terror group. Friedman later wrote: "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."
But even as it has come to light that Friends of Hamas does not exist, Breitbart.com continues to claim the story was accurate and criticize the ostensibly liberal mainstream media for failing to pursue full disclosure — which probably won't do much to endear it to its ample skeptics.
Breitbart.com is not the first (and certainly will not be the last) media outlet to fail so spectacularly, but the controversy nevertheless evinces two critical and interrelated problems with modern journalism: the intrusion of political bias into what should be balanced reporting, and the destructive race to break new stories first. Collectively, these problems reveal the sad state of contemporary journalism.
Democrats love to condemn Fox News as demonically conservative, while their Republican counterparts detest basically every other media outlet not headed by Roger Ailes, Bill Kristol, or Glenn Beck for having alleged liberal inclinations. But whether it's Anderson Cooper or Bill O'Reilly, theoretically these journalists, as stewards of the Fourth Estate, should inject a modicum of objectivity into their reporting. Whether this is feasible, ultimately desirable, or just misguidedly idealistic is a different debate altogether; however, there is a clear lack of pure objectivity among the outlets that profess nonpartisanship and journalistic integrity.
Yet manifesting varying degrees of political favoritism in reporting is arguably secondary to the devastating consequences resulting from the race among disparate and competing media sources to break stories first. Last June, Americans witnessed CNN and Fox News initially flub the landmark Obamacare ruling, with both prematurely announcing that the Supreme Court ruled the individual mandate unconstitutional. (CNN later issued a direct apology; Fox News was more equivocal.) Such are the consequences of the implacable quest for ratings and viewership; balance and accuracy are often sacrificed for rapidity and drama.
These are problems PolicyMic writers should take seriously. Breitbart.com, in racing to publish a potentially meaty story and advance its conservative agenda, committed major journalistic malpractice. Although PolicyMic is not traditional media — it's democratic, organic, and empowering, not pedantic or detached — and although many of the site's pundits do not have formal journalism training, to be relevant in a world increasingly connected via technology yet paradoxically diffuse as more media options emerge, it is contingent on us writers to maintain high standards of quality in our writing and observe traditional norms of diligence and factual accuracy, even if we are nontraditional participants.