This month, the conservative site Breitbart.com suggested that Senator Chuck Hagel, Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense, had secret financial ties to a group called “Friends of Hamas.” It did not look good: a U.S. politician had allegedly received money from a terrorist organization that's called for Israel’s destruction. Turns out though, it wasn’t true. New York Daily News reporter Dan Friedman tells Brooke about his theory that he was the source of the rumor.
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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. If President Obama has his way, former Senator Chuck Hagel will be the country's next Secretary of Defense. But Hagel’s path hasn’t been smooth. He’s been bedeviled with the perception that he's anti-Israel. Throwing fuel on that fire was the conservative site, Breitbart.com, which suggested in a story that Hagel had secret financial ties to a group called “Friends of Hamas.” If he had received money from a terrorist organization that had called for Israel's destruction, that could be a problem. But it wasn't true. In fact, it was actually a joke that took on the power of rumor. And Dan Friedman, who covers Washington for the New York Daily News, was probably the source.
DAN FRIEDMAN: There was a letter from - I think, it was 26 Republican senators to Hagel, asking him if he had gotten money from foreign groups or foreign governments in his career after the Senate. And I was asking a couple of people if those senators knew the actual instances. And in one conversation with a senate aide I threw out hypothetical - what I thought would be obviously fictional over-the-top names -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me be the senate aide. Ring-ring-ring, hello, this is the Republican aide for a senator. Who’s on the line?
DAN FRIEDMAN: This is [LAUGHS] Dan Friedman –
- with the New York Daily News. And this is not a direct transcript but I said something like, I have heard these rumors that Hagel has talked to groups that are controversial for fees. Do you know if they actually know of specific instances where maybe he talked to Group X that was controversial? For example, did he talk to the “Junior League of Hezbollah?”
Did he talk to “Friends of Hamas?” This is not the first time I’ve talked to this person. I thought that it was understood that this was not an actual name. The person said they would check. I followed up with an email which said, again, if you know of any controversial groups, please let me know. Did he get a $25,000 fee from “Friends of Hamas?”
I didn’t think about it until I saw an article on Slate.com, and somehow I had completely missed that this group name had become a little firestorm among conservative parts of the Internet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Most notably, on February 7th on the conservative website Breitbart.com, the headline, “SECRET HAGEL DONOR?: WHITE HOUSE SPOX DUCKS QUESTION ON ‘FRIENDS OF HAMAS.’” What does that mean?
DAN FRIEDMAN: Ben Shapiro who writes for Breitbart.com called the White House to try to get them to comment on this alleged rumor, and the White House spokesman hung up on him, and that – that is cited in the story as a suggestion that perhaps this is true, or at least they didn't deny it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So your best guess is that Ben Shapiro, Breitbart's editor at large, either heard from the aide that you spoke to or from someone that the aide spoke to, right? And so, then you wrote a story.
DAN FRIEDMAN: It seemed almost impossible to be anything other than the case that it had started with my email. I had asked this question on February 6th, and the story that alleged this “Friends of Hamas” appeared the next day. So I wrote a story after conferring with my editors on Tuesday, which sort of explained my own role in this, in how it appeared that a perhaps slightly flippant query that I made emerged reported as fact or close to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: 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. Mike Huckabee said from Israel that rumors of Chuck Hagel's having received funds from “Friends of Hamas” would, if true, disqualify him. It got around. But Ben Schapiro says that he had multiple sources on this story.
DAN FRIEDMAN: He says that the person he talked to told him that multiple people asked him about it, after this had been reported on this website. They didn't originate it. And the reason that I know that they didn't originate it is because I made it up, because it was a hypothetical that came from my brain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, in response to your story, Schapiro is quoted as saying, “The story, as reported, is correct. Whether the information I was given by the source is correct, I am not sure.
DAN FRIEDMAN: His standard was that he felt that the story is correct ‘cause it is true that the source told him, if you read the caveats that he puts in there, something like this: Where I work you need to have a few sources and you need to believe that this is fact. But, you know, to his credit, he understands very well that distinction and he says a different standard applies to what he writes. I said, do you consider yourself an objective journalist? And he said, no, I do not. I have a conservative agenda. I want Chuck Hagel to be defeated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I noticed that your source may not have protected you but you're still protecting your Senate source.
DAN FRIEDMAN: I don’t see how that would make anything better, to be honest. It also not helped me. As I, as I move forward with my job, and I need to continue to talk to people, and, and it’s a chance for me to say that kind of agreement is pretty ironclad, hopefully, when I make it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about joking on the phone and in emails?
DAN FRIEDMAN: Well, I wouldn’t do it again like that.
People may not realize how much interaction there is between some staff and reporters who cover Capitol Hill, and you get to know them and you, and you have lunch with them, maybe you have drinks with them and you do joke around. And they’re gonna cover Congress, who should they be talking to? I mean, the staff is the best source on many of these things.
But the tradeoff with that is it’s very hard to avoid what might appear to outsiders as overly chummy relationships with some of the people that you talk to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dan, thank you very much.
DAN FRIEDMAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dan Friedman is the New York Daily News's Washington correspondent. We asked Ben Schapiro for a comment but we didn’t hear back.