As the smear campaign against Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel intensified, it reached a rather comical level when the right tried to tie the former Republican senator to a group called Friends of Hamas. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) suggested the association was yet another reason to oppose Hagel's confirmation.
The problem, of course, is that there's no such thing as Friends of Hamas. The right invested quite a bit of energy into a connection that doesn't exist.
But there's been a lingering question: how in the world did conservatives come up with this silliness in the first place? I mean, really, "Friend of Hamas"? Are we living in a poorly-written Republican comic book?
As it turns out, the New York Daily News' Dan Friedman thinks he knows how this mess got started. In fact, Friedman's pretty sure he inadvertently got the ball rolling.
...When rumors swirled that Hagel received speaking fees from controversial organizations, I attempted to check them out. On Feb. 6, I called a Republican aide on Capitol Hill with a question: Did Hagel's Senate critics know of controversial groups that he had addressed?
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.
Or so I thought.
Literally the day after Friedman jokingly referenced the made-up group with a GOP staffer on the Hill, Breitbart.com ran its first report on "Friends of Hamas," citing "Senate sources." And just like that, thanks to the incestuous, self-reinforcing nature of Republican media, the bogus meme spread like wildfire.
Wait, it gets worse.
Dan Friedman's report added:
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, [Breitbart.com's Ben 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.
In theory, a reaction like this from Shapiro should cause real harm to his and Breitbart.com's credibility -- not to mention the bloggers, pundits, and activists who helped spread this around without considering the story's veracity -- but it would appear the standards in conservative media don't play by the usual journalistic rules.