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We're not making this up. But someone did

Chuck Hagel

Chuck Hagel, Team Obama's pick for Defence Secretary, was the subject of a joke gone sour. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Major buzz in Washington today over a  jaw-dropping mea culpa, in which a New York Daily News reporter confesses his role as the unwitting source of a rumour that nearly toppled Chuck Hagel, Team Obama's choice for defence secretary.

Turns out journalist Dan Friedman's intentions were ha-ha-funny when he asked a Republican source on Capitol Hill whether anyone knew which controversial groups were said to have paid Hagel big-money speaking fees.

"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?' ," Friedman recounts.

"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."

Oh yes they could. And did.

Barely a day after Friedman's tongue-in-cheek telephone inquiry, the fire-breathing conservative website Breitbart.com inflated a non-story into a Great Big Bubble of Something under the headline, Secret Hagel Donor? White House Spox Ducks Questions On 'Friends of Hamas'.

The Breitbart piece, authored by Ben Shapiro, sparked a right-wing pile-on, conflating layers of nothing in the days that followed. Mike Huckabee, among others, weighed in, saying, "Rumours of Chuck Hagel's having received funds from Friends of Hamas" would, if true, "disqualify him."

Friedman chased down Shapiro, who was still standing by the non-story, while simultaneously acknowledging it may be untrue. "The story as reported is correct," Friedman quotes Shapiro as saying. "Whether the information I was given by the source is correct I am not sure."

Friedman, to his credit, is determined to set the record straight, drawing lessons from the intersection of hyperpartisanship and sloppy reporting.

"I am, it seems, the creator of the Friends of Hamas myth," he writes. "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 rumour.

"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."

(H/T to the CBC's Kady O'Malley who flagged Friedman's saga as "an absolutely astonishing cautionary tale for political journalists.")

Mitch Potter is the Toronto Star's Washington Bureau Chief, his third foreign posting after previous assignments to London and Jerusalem. Potter led the Toronto Star’s coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he won a 2006 National Newspaper Award for his reportage. His dispatches include datelines from 33 countries since 2000. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites




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The story as reported is correct," Friedman quotes Shapiro as saying. "Whether the information I was given by the source is correct I am not sure."

That about sums up the entire right-wing media establishment. If they hear something crazy they report it. Facts are irrelevant.

If Friedman had instead asked "Any truth to the rumor that Hagel punches babies?", what are the odds that the neocon echo chamber would have taken the bait? 100% probably.

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