Last week, we made note of the way the hearings on Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of Defense -- both within and outside the Senate chambers -- had reached an apotheosis of weird, with the discussion now basically centered on how it would be really bad for Hagel if any of the odd rumors about stuff he'd allegedly said or money he'd allegedly received turned out to be true.
Like, what if Hagel said that "the State Department has become adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister’s office"?" And what if we all pretended that "adjunct to" meant "under the control of"? And what's this I hear about Iran "endorsing" Hagel? Isn't that a bad thing? Shouldn't we assume that is sincere, and not just some functionary in Iran, trying to bait a bunch of simpleton lawmakers?
One of the more fun rumors of this variety was that Chuck Hagel had received some money from an organization called "Friends of Hamas," a rumor which, if true, required a number of vastly strange things to happen. For instance, a bunch of guys who were "friends" of "Hamas" would have to be stupid enough to name their Hamas-supporting organization "Friends of Hamas." Those people would then have to be stupid enough to give Hagel some money, for some reason. And then Hagel would have to be stupid enough to accept that money. And then a whole industry of agencies dedicated to elucidating the connections between political figures and the special interests that bankroll them would have to be stupid enough to not notice.
It was, in short, such a vanishingly small possibility that an organization named "Friends of Hamas" existed, and that it had given money to Hagel, that the whole thing should have been treated as if it were some kind of joke. And guess what everybody? "Friends of Hamas" was -- literally! -- a joke. And the guy who came up with the joke was the New York Daily News' Dan Friedman, who thought that his joke was pretty obvious when he called up a "Republican aide on Capitol Hill" to ask after whether there was any truth to some of the weird rumors floating around about money Hagel had received. As Friedman relates Wednesday:
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”?
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.
Friedman sent a subsequent follow-up email repeated the language, with Friedman assuming that the hyperbole had been received. After all, you would have to be a very gullible person to believe that a Hamas-supporting organization would call themselves "Friends of Hamas."
What Friedman failed to understand is that Capitol Hill is filled to the brim with such gullible people. And the person he called was either one such dimwit or, at the very least, plugged in to a whole network of galactic incompetents, because pretty soon, his joke went sideways on him. Borne aloft by the distortions of the classic kindergarten jape "The Telephone Game" -- "Friends of Hamas" had become a thing. Soon after, its ersatz thingness had found its way into the imagination of Breitbart screecher Ben Shapiro, who published a whole story treating the Friedman's original hyperbolic aside as if it were reality, and not a hallucination.
Friedman isn't able to account for how and when this all went wrong, and he can't put a finger on which idiots were taken in by his joke. There were, however, multiple levels of stultifying ineptitude at work:
On Monday, I reached my source. The person denied sharing my query with Breitbart but admitted the chance of having mentioned it to others. Since the source knew we spoke under a standard that my questions weren’t for sharing, that’s a problem.
But there was another fail-safe. Since the “Friends of Hamas” speech was imaginary, it was not like another reporter could confirm it, right?
Not quite. Reached Tuesday, Shapiro acknowledged “Friends of Hamas” might not exist. But he said his story used “very, very specific language” to avoid flatly claiming it did.
“The story as reported is correct. Whether the information I was given by the source is correct I am not sure,” he said.
So, Friedman's source stupidly thought "Friends Of Hamas" existed, stupidly violated protocol with other similarly stupid people, one of whom probably stupidly took this to Shapiro, who published it without any concern that he was feeding his readers concentrate of bovine leavings. Shapiro's story boomeranged around the right wing blogosphere, receiving message force multiplication. That's when Dave Weigel and Emma Roller stepped in, thankfully, and did the thing that Shapiro was disinclined to do -- journalism:
Here's the problem: There's no proof that "Friends of Hamas" actually exists. At best, it's an organization so secret that nobody in government has thought to mention its existence. At worst, it's as fake as Manti Te'o's girlfriend. The Treasury Department, which designates sponsors of terror, has done so to many charities tied to Hamas. "Friends of Hamas" is not among them. The State Department doesn't designate it, either. And a bit less holistically, a Lexis search for the group reveals absolutely nothing.
I've been unable to find any Senate staffer who knows where the "Friends" rumor came from, and Dave Reaboi, communications director for the (generally conservative) Center for Security Policy, shared my confusion about the alleged group. "Looking back to the 1990s, there were several groups (some affiliated with Holy Land Foundation, some not) that functioned as fund-raisers," he said in an email. "I wouldn't put it past these people to refer to it this way in private, but I doubt highly that they'd actually call a legit group 'Friends of Hamas.'"
Shapiro, as you might expect, did not do that thing where he writes a correction/apology for putting up an wild-eyed article about a rumor that most vertebrates would at least treat with some degree of credulity. Instead, he's now accusing Friedman of lying about being the source. Shapiro's new take is as cleverly "caveated" as his last -- he gets to say that the source for his story didn't hear about the story from Friedman, but that doesn't necessarily mean Friedman wasn't on the end of the chain of whispers. Regardless, it's not actually doing anyone a public service to quibble with Friedman, it's time to either take down the irresponsible nonsense about "Friends Of Hamas" or prove you're not a chump by running this shadowy organization to ground. Short of that, take it on the arches.
At any rate, I guess that hyperbole is one of the nice things that reporters working Capitol Hill are not allowed to have, because of the fierce asininity that rages there.
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