Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) holds the honor of being the only secretary of defense nominee ever to be filibustered. While he is expected to earn Congressional approval after the President’s Day recess concludes next week, Hagel’s tumultuous path to the Obama cabinet has encapsulated the dysfunction and inefficiency within the Republican Party. Their primary complaint has been Hagel’s inconsistent endorsement of Israel, particularly his opposition to pre-emptive strikes on Iran and support for unconditional talks with Hamas and Hezbollah. High members of the hawkish Jewish lobby, including billionaire casino-magnate Sheldon Adelson, have spent millions on advertisements seeking to block Hagel’s accession.
As such, it did not seem particularly shocking when Breitbart.com published an article suggesting Hagel had received funding from a group conspicuously named "Friends of Hamas." Yesterday, however, the story was recanted and the rumors were found to be completely fallacious. Hagel has no ties to "Friends of Hamas" because, well, the group doesn’t exist. This pattern of scandalmongering has became all too common for the so-called "news" website founded by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, who passed away last March.
Breitbart’s rise to journalistic fame began in mid-2009 after his website released undercover videos of inappropriate interactions with ACORN employees. Conservative activists secretly recorded videos of their meetings with ACORN, a community-building non-profit operating in low-income neighborhoods. The most damning excerpt portrayed a low-level employee encouraging prostitution and tax evasion. The plot was an enormous success, forcing ACORN into bankruptcy after virtually all their federal funding was suspended. However, not all Breitbart’s exhibitions have been so concordant.
In July 2010, Breitbart published a video of USDA official Shirley Sherrod making apparently racist remarks at an NAACP meeting regarding her reluctance to provide aid for white farmers. This in turn led the Obama administration to force Ms. Sherrod’s resignation. But after Sherrod’s speech was released in its entirety, the episode became a historic blunder for both Breitbart and Obama. When viewed in the context of her 43-minute speech, it became clear Sherrod was condemning the racist attitudes she previously appeared to endorse.
I do not seek to implicate Breitbart as the American media’s only political gossip-hunter. It is easy to forget the unauthenticated Killian documents aired by 60 Minutes less than two months before the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush. The documents, purportedly proving that Bush had avoided obligations to the National Guard, were demonstrated to be forgeries only a few weeks after the scandal was exposed on CBS. 60 Minutes and CBS apologized for the error, though many news organizations (like Breitbart's) are less repentant. Scandalous reporting is often disguised by a veil of ambiguity that makes its credibility difficult to assess, as Breitbart.com indicated in its response to yesterday’s allegations. More than anything, these scandals can rapidly increase the popularity of websites that would otherwise be relegated to obscurity. Indeed, Breitbart.com exploded precisely because scandalous reports can so quickly go viral.
Whether defaming or accurate, scandal exposition is an incredibly lucrative market. Ultimately, it should be the responsibility of those media organizations not directly party to the allegations to evaluate the credibility of these reports and express more restraint before contributing to their viral explosion.