Unearthing social media posts to target public figures, and even ordinary citizens, has been a standard journalistic tactic for years now. We got a powerful reminder of that Tuesday morning when Bloomberg reporter Ben Penn wrote a story about a Trump administration official, accused of posting an anti-Semitic screed on Facebook in 2016. Within hours, the story had claimed a scalp: Labor Department lawyer Leif Olson had resigned. All in a day’s work for a crusading journalist.
Except what Olson was accused of wasn’t remotely what had happened. What he wrote was actually the opposite of anti-Semitic. The Facebook post in question was a sarcastic send-up of Paul Nehlen, the alt-right anti-Semite who primaried then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Even the most obtuse social media maven would have been tipped off when Olson wrote of Ryan, “The guy just suffered a massive, historic, emasculating 70-point victory. Let’s see him and his Georgetown cocktail-party puppetmasters try to walk that one off.”
Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter famously said that after 9/11 “irony was dead,” but apparently it took the election of Donald Trump for journalists to get out the backhoe and toss our collective sense of humor into the family plot.
Speaking of irony, the thread that got Olson into trouble began with his attempt to defend the media. After a friend of Olson’s made a joke about Paul Ryan being Jewish (3%, according to genetic testing), Olson responded sarcastically: “It must be true because I’ve never seen the Lamestream Media report it, and you know they protect their own.”
It’s a small consolation that Penn was immediately blasted for his hatchet job by liberal journalists as well as conservatives. But a bigger clue as to the direction of the news business was that his news organization defended him.
It used to be that if such a libelous accusation made it through the editing process, a senior editor would find you and rip your head off. You were lucky if they did it in their office, instead of the middle of the newsroom. Once that was taken care of, you would meekly sit down with the editor -- sometimes more than one -- go through the reporting of the story and figure out what kind of correction, retraction, or response was both in the best interests of accuracy and the publication’s reputation.
What happened in this case was that no one was around to help exercise good judgment. Penn took to Twitter. There he disputed valid criticisms, and at one point published screenshots of intemperate messages sent to him by Commentary editor John Podhoretz. If the editor of one of the country’s most prominent Jewish publications is privately calling you a “repugnant child” over your story alleging anti-Semitism, perhaps some self-reflection is in order. Instead, Penn used it as an excuse to further promote his story.
Penn’s Twitter feed did provide a motive for the attack on Olson. He repeatedly flirted with openly suggesting that he had singled out Olson because of politics and religion. Among other things, Penn brought up the non-sequitur that Olson had been involved in gay marriage litigation -- and not in a way that he approved of. “Olson sued Houston law recognizing same-sex marriage licenses -- even after Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal nationwide,” he tweeted.
The problem here is that Olson disputes this description of his work, and in fact wrote a pre-emptive note on Facebook that appears to have correctly predicted how unfair Penn’s story would be.
“I anticipate that, in a few hours, a story will hit Bloomberg News’s Daily Labor Report. In it, Ben Penn will write that I was hired as a Senior Policy Advisor, even though I had posted ‘controversial’ statements in the wake of Paul Ryan’s re-election that ‘some might take’ as anti-Semitic,” Olson wrote. “… He will continue to note that there are other ‘controversial’ things about me. I represented the plaintiffs who sued Houston’s mayor to enjoin her executive order requiring the city to pay spousal benefits to same-sex spouses despite the explicit prohibition against doing so in the Texas Constitution, Texas Family Code, and City Charter. (He will probably not note that the lawsuit was brought before Obergefell was decided and that my name stopped appearing on the papers after it was decided.)”
As of late Tuesday afternoon, there was no retraction or correction on Bloomberg for an inaccurate smear that cost a man his job. It’s further appalling that the Bloomberg story feels like “Groundhog Day.” It was only the previous Tuesday that the Washington Post published a column accusing best-selling author J.D. Vance of being a white supremacist who only wants white babies in the United States. Vance is married to a woman of color and has a mixed-race child. The author was simply making things up – “fake news” you could call it – but she doubled down on her vicious allegations after being caught and later said an editor at the Post is the one who suggested she add that particular libel to her piece.
It’s worth recalling that one of the standards for libel when it comes to public figures is “reckless disregard for the truth.” That description now seems to be standard operating procedure at many outlets.
All this is happening as the media continue to bemoan that a large portion of the public doesn’t respect them or, worse, is coming to get them. On Aug. 25, The New York Times ran a story headlined “Trump Allies Target Journalists Over Coverage Deemed Hostile to White House.” Once you read the story, however, it all seemed less ominous. The story was that Trump allies threatened to discredit journalists by, get this, publicizing what journalists have said on social media.
“Operatives have closely examined more than a decade’s worth of public posts and statements by journalists, the people familiar with the operation said,” read the breathless report. The report, which was a news story and not an opinion piece, went so far as to argue that when journalists cast a critical eye on the public statements of others, that’s fair game -- but applying journalistic standards to journalists, however, was automatically an act of bad faith.
“Using journalistic techniques to target journalists and news organizations as retribution for — or as a warning not to pursue — coverage critical of the president is fundamentally different from the well-established role of the news media in scrutinizing people in positions of power,” wrote Times reporters Kenneth Vogel and Jeremy Peters.
Are national political reporters really acting in the thrall of some delusion where they aren’t powerful figures who have the ability to destroy or lift up whomever they fixate on? How exactly do they think they should be held accountable to the public if they insist on employing double standards for their own conduct?
We tried to get to the bottom of these questions, but Leif Olson was busy cleaning out his desk, and could not be reached for comment.