Failure to disclose: Journalism, ethics and Breitbart ‘news’

February 25, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 25, 2014

Last week, I wrote about the Texas Tribune, which was the subject of a lengthy critique documenting serious issues with journalism ethics, notably rampant conflicts of interest and lax disclosures of same.

As noted in that blog post, I first became interested in the Tribune after seeing a pair of tweets Wednesday by Michael Quinn Sullivan, a conservative Texas political activist. Sullivan, it would turn out, posted another message on Twitter later the same day that also caught my eye.

#TxLege #GOP Rep. Threatens To Sue For Discussing His Voting Record: via @BreitbartNews

— Michael Q Sullivan (@MQSullivan) February 20, 2014

Sullivan’s tweet links to this Breitbart article. The relatively short story goes like this: Texas state Rep. Jim Keffer, a Republican from Eastland who faces a challenger in next month’s primary election, “has sent letters threatening legal action against cable companies running an ad by Empower Texans that references his voting record.” The lawmaker, per Breitbart, disputes the ad’s contention that he “voted to give special privileges to labor unions while attacking conservative groups.”

A Keffer aide has also asked a web hosting company to shut down Despite its name, the site is run by Empower Texans, which supports Cullen Crisp, Keffer’s challenger. The legislator’s aide claims that the site puts the hosting company in violation of a Texas law against cyber-bullying. A lawyer for Empower Texans is quoted in the story as pooh-poohing that contention.

The article is moderately interesting, not so much for what it says but for the issues it raises. I’m not a lawyer, but it’s well-established in American jurisprudence that public figures — a group that absolutely includes elected officials — lack the same privacy expectations as most other people. Could a state legislator possibly have the right to sue under a cyber-bullying statute? Could he challenge misleading TV ads in court?

Also, conservatives have recently begun launching websites that ostensibly seem to promote one candidate but were actually created by, and are collecting money for, the named politician’s opponents. Is this practice deceptive enough that an individual could legally sanction the person or group behind such a site?

(This odd trend of doppelgänger political sites has been covered by National JournalNBC and Time. A spokesman recently told the Los Angeles Times that the National Republican Congressional Committee “will continue generating the fake websites, saying the organization now owns “hundreds of URLs that the Democrats chose not to purchase.’” CNN has also reported that the NRCC plans to keep making doppelgänger sites.)

But I hadn’t heard of Keffer before, and I have minimal interest in Texas politics. So after I finished reading the Breitbart Texas article, I was prepared to basically forget all about what I’d just read. Then I happened to notice the byline for the person who wrote the post: Michael Q. Sullivan.

As stated above, Sullivan is a conservative political activist. More to the point, he’s run Empower Texans since 2006.

That’s right: Sullivan heads the organization that created the ads and website over which Keffer is threatening legal action. More to the point, Sullivan wrote an article about the burgeoning dispute without disclosing that he’s a key official at Empower Texans, which is actively working to put Keffer out of office.

In his Breitbart Texas post, Sullivan blithely quotes a lawyer for Empower Texans who dismisses Keffer’s legal threats. The article doesn’t quote an independent legal observer who might be able to provide a less subjective evaluation of the legal issues. Nor does the page note that Sullivan essentially employs the lawyer whom he quotes as disparaging Keffer’s claims.

There is a long and rich tradition of advocacy journalism, and the First Amendment affords broad protection for free speech. So in those regards, it’s perfectly fine for Sullivan to attack Keffer despite his avowed goal of unseating Keffer. What’s emphatically not OK is for Sullivan to write about a topic under the guise of objective journalism when he is clearly, fully and unapologetically a partisan coordinating strategy for one of the parties in the dispute.

The Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project lays out nine fundamental principles of journalism. The fourth item is particularly relevant here (emphasis added):

4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover
Independence is an underlying requirement of journalism, a cornerstone of its reliability. Independence of spirit and mind, rather than neutrality, is the principle journalists must keep in focus. While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform — not their devotion to a certain group or outcome. In our independence, however, we must avoid any tendency to stray into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism.

All Sullivan and his editors need have done to give themselves legitimate journalistic cover would have been to disclose Sullivan’s involvement with Empower Texans. That the writer and his editors failed to do so is quite a telling omission.

Telling, but not all that surprising given the “news” organization involved. Andrew Breitbart first made waves in 2009 when his website released James O’Keefe’s deceptively edited videos of interviews with employees of Acorn. This publicly funded liberal advocacy group was defunded and disbanded as a result of Breitbart’s misleading video “scoop.” A lesser-known consequence of O’Keefe’s purported journalism is that he agreed to make a $100,000 payment (and write a brief apology) to one of the Acorn workers shown in the videos.

In 2010, Breitbart promoted another deceptively edited video, this time of a mid-level U.S. Department of Agriculture official named Shirley Sherrod. The recording, which showed parts of a speech Sherrod made at an NAACP meeting, resulted in her being fired for allegedly admitting that she had discriminated against a white farmer. “Not included in the video posting was the bulk of Sherrod’s talk, in which she recognized the error of her ways a quarter of a century ago and helped the white man, saving his farm,” James Rainey noted in the Los Angeles Times. “As a result, the farm advocate and the white family formed a lasting friendship.”

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum blasted Breitbart for his role in vilifying Sherrod. Frum also correctly predicted that Breitbart wouldn’t suffer any credibility loss among his peers in conservative media:

There will be no apology or statement of regret for distributing a doctored tape to defame and destroy someone. There will be not even a flutter of interest among conservatives in discussing Breitbart’s role. By the morning of July 21, the Fox & Friends morning show could devote a segment to the Sherrod case without so much as a mention of Breitbart’s role. The central fact of the Sherrod story has been edited out of the conservative narrative, just as it was edited out of the tape itself.

When people talk of the “closing of the conservative mind” this is what they mean: not that conservatives are more narrow-minded than other people — everybody can be narrow minded — but that conservatives have a unique capacity to ignore unwelcome fact.

When Dan Rather succumbed to the forged Bush war record hoax in 2004, CBS forced him into retirement. Breitbart is the conservative Dan Rather, but there will be no discredit, no resignation for him.

Breitbart himself will never apologize to Sherrod, at least not in this world; he died in 2012. His organization may yet be forced to pay for smearing her, however, thanks to Sherrod’s ongoing lawsuit against Breitbart. (Recently, a federal judge blasted the Department of Agriculture for balking at releasing relevant documents.)

To the best of my knowledge, Breitbart’s organization also has yet to apologize for the journalistic malfeasance committed by Ben Shapiro. About a year ago, the Breitbart editor-at-large alleged that Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator whom Obama had nominated to be secretary of defense, had ties to a terrorist-linked group called Friends of Hamas.

“There was, it turns out, a problem with the story,” Alex Koppelman wrote in The New Yorker. “Friends of Hamas does not exist, and never has.” It turned out that New York Daily News reporter Dan Friedman had joked about there being such an organization; after learning of and misinterpreting this bit of humor, Shapiro wrote an extremely speculative blog post.

As is typically the case in Breitbart fiascoes, neither Shapiro nor his editors deigned to apologize. Wrote Koppelman:

To be embarrassed about the story, they’d have to understand that the hypothesis of Shapiro’s story was “Chuck Hagel may have been the recipient of funding from a group called Friends of Hamas,” and they’d have to care about proving it true. Their version of the hypothesis is much simpler, and more vicious: “Someone told us that Chuck Hagel may have been the recipient of funding from a group called Friends of Hamas.” This has the virtue, from a certain perspective, of being completely unfalsifiable—as soon as the source gave them the tip, the story was true by definition and in perpetuity, no matter what.

There is no reporter who is incapable of error, no established media outlet without a black mark or twenty on its record. But those are generally mistakes or aberrations; this is the way of doing business. Where journalists are researchers, they see themselves as warriors, picking up Breitbart’s hashtagged mantle #WAR. With that mindset, the kind of rigor they demand from the mainstream media becomes a hindrance.

It’s not often that one sees the kind of blatant disregard for the truth involved in the Friends of Hamas story. Still, even as the right has made more of an effort to establish its own journalistic endeavors, conservative media outlets, in practice, are still failing all too often to properly vet their stories.

The hit parade goes on. Shortly after the “Friends of Hamas” debacle, Breitbart posted a story about New York Times columnist, Princeton economist, Nobel laureate and liberal guru Paul Krugman mismanaging his personal finances to the point where he had to file for bankruptcy. This “news,” alas, had originated in the not-so-august pages of The Daily Currant, a parody website.

(Ironically, this debacle came a few weeks after Breitbart had blasted a Washington Post columnist for failing to verify a fake news story run by The Daily Currant.)

And later in 2013, Breitbart (understandably) got confused over just when certain sexts by disgraced former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner had been sent. Rather than admit its mistake, the organization simply deleted a post. Something very similar had happened the prior year, when the website mistook a Bono impersonator for the actual U2 frontman and then deleted the offending post without acknowledging having made an error.

(There’s another irony here, which is that Breitbart contributed genuinely useful — and even accurate! — reporting that helped first bring news of Weiner’s misconduct to light.)

Patterico, a conservative commentator who has one post on Breitbart that defended the site during the Sherrod imbroglio, blasted the website for its handling of both these errors. In 2012, he wrote:

Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. But people carefully watch how you handle mistakes.

The right way to do it is to quickly, forthrightly, and thoroughly admit error — to move to correct the error, apologize, and explain how it happened.

Following the miscue over Weiner sexts, Patterico (real name Patrick Frey, a Los Angeles prosecutor) wrote: “They have learned nothing. They continue to try to sweep away their errors away from public view and hope nobody notices.”

I could go on; there’s the kerfuffle over Breitbart posting misleadingly edited videos that made university professors seem to endorse union violence, or the site’s misadventures reporting on the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., or its misinterpretation of climate change science, or its hiring of Matt Boyle, who publicized what have proven to be thoroughly discredited allegations about a Democratic senator exploiting underage Dominican prostitutes. But the pattern is clear: Breitbart is a website where journalistic principles seem to be broken more frequently than they’re upheld.

For me, the most discouraging thing about Breitbart isn’t that it has so little disregard for accuracy or honesty. Nor is it that the main problem with Michael Quinn Sullivan’s reporting — the failure to disclose his vested interests — could very easily be fixed with a short statement. It’s not even that Alexa, a web analysis firm, ranks Breitbart as the Internet’s 49th most popular source for news.

Instead, the most depressing thing is that Breitbart is growing its operation. Sullivan’s post about Keffer, in fact, was an early entry on Breitbart Texas. Company chairman Stephen Bannon told The New York Times’ Leslie Kaufman that “the operation was not quite profitable, but is lean, with only about 25 journalists, and an additional dozen or so coming on for the new sites.”

“Journalists” would seem to be a generous word for Breitbart writers, but be that as it may.

Bannon said one other thing of note. He told the Times that Breitbart’s timetable for launching new regional sites “had been accelerated because of a desire to influence two important political battles” — upcoming elections in Texas and London. He also described the men running the new London operation as “real hell fighters in the Breitbart tradition.”

An ancient proverb posits that truth is the first casualty of war. Breitbart’s partisan assault on journalism bears out that wisdom and suggests that ethics is quick to join the truth.

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