Politics & Policy

Ben Penn’s Bad-Faith Hit Job on Leif Olson

President Donald Trump talks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, June 26, 2019. (Joyce N. Boghosian/White House)
The new normal: Activist-reporters misreport and misconstrue the words of their ideological opponents in order to get them fired.

Did the Department of Labor hire a deplorable anti-Semite? Bloomberg Law reporter Ben Penn says they did. His report begins this way:

A recently appointed Trump Labor Department official with a history of advancing controversial conservative and faith-based causes in court has resigned after revelations that he wrote a 2016 Facebook post suggesting the Jewish-controlled media “protects their own.”

Solemnly the story goes on to note that Texas lawyer Leif Olson was fired just hours after Penn had alerted the Department of Labor to the quote, posted on Olson’s personal Facebook page in August 2016. Penn tweeted that the whole episode is “the latest in a series of mishaps under the Trump administration personnel vetting system.”

But the mishap is Penn’s. Or, at least that’s the most generous way to put it. His report leaves out the context of Leif’s Facebook post, which makes it clear he was satirizing Paul Nehlen, an alt-right primary challenger to Paul Ryan, and his supporters. Nehlen is an anti-Semite, and Olson is mocking him. This isn’t difficult to tell at all, because, in a post just above the “protects their own” comment, Olson imitates the alt-right’s fake-it-till-you-make-it tone of male panic and inadequacy: Referring to Paul Ryan, he says, “The guy just suffered a massive, historic, emasculating 70-point victory. Let’s see him and his Georgetown cocktail-party puppetmasters try to walk that one off.”

Penn provided none of the historical or tonal context. Instead, he wrote his story according to an emerging norm among activist journalists: If a journalist is offended or even if he is merely pretending to be offended, then there is a “controversy” to be covered.

Penn also got facts wrong. It’s true that Olson represented plaintiffs who sued Houston’s mayor in relation to the city’s paying spousal benefits to same-sex spouses, despite a constitutional prohibition on same-sex marriage in the Texas constitution. But Penn reports that even after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell striking down all such laws, “Olson alleged that the city should still be prohibited from paying benefits to the spouses of municipal employees in same-sex marriages.” In fact, Olson’s name was taken off the case at that time.

A reader who isn’t blind to context can clearly see that Penn’s report gives its victim one last kick in the head, at the end: “The abrupt end to his 18 days of government service now gives Olson an opportunity to resume his appellate practice as a private citizen.” This is Penn’s end-zone dance, in which he crows, Look at the new opportunities my reporting, and the craven response of your employer, has afforded you!

The fact that Penn’s report dwelled on Olson’s “controversial conservative and faith-based causes” tells us the motive for being so underhanded. This is ideological payback.

Sometimes one suspects there is a problem of reading comprehension at work in cases like these. Certain reporters and outlets suffer from a rare form of colorblindness when it comes to conservatives who are being sarcastic or satirical. The fact-checking site Snopes has found it impossible to acknowledge that the Babylon Bee, a Christian satire news site, is, in fact, satire. Criticized for its apparent lack of common sense, Snopes has gone so far as to promote an opinion survey about paraphrased Babylon Bee stories to prove that people are mistaking its satire for real news. But of course paraphrases remove the satirical context, so any such survey is therefore useless. In other words, a fact-checking enterprise has relied on fake news in order to justify treating obvious satire as deliberate fake news.

At other times — and this is one of them — clearly the motive is ideological hostility.

Earlier this year, New Statesman reporter George Eaton interviewed Roger Scruton on a number of topics. Scruton is a philosopher and conservative thinker of great renown, and he had been put on a government commission dedicated to the building of more beautiful public houses. Scruton had, at one time, been the wine critic of the left-leaning New Statesman. Eaton, having won the man’s trust, then butchered his quotes, put them in a different context, and created a social-media uproar that led to Scruton’s being sacked from his position.

One example: Scruton had said in the interview that the Chinese Communist Party was “in a sense creating robots out of their own people, by so constraining what can be done that each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that’s a very frightening thing.” Eaton shortened the quote to “each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that’s a very frightening thing,” thereby whipping up anger over Scruton’s supposed racism. And Eaton simply left out quotes demonstrating Scruton’s concern for Chinese persecution of Muslims. By now, you see the technique. The truth about the Scruton smear only came out after Douglas Murray acquired a recording and transcript of the full interview.

The new standard isn’t the truth. Ideological activists working at putatively “neutral” news outlets now use a standard of miscontrual. If any of your remarks can be read in bad faith, if any of them can be misconstrued, it is the duty of the reporter to misconstrue them for the public. This standard is fatal to real journalism.

The newsworthy element of this story is not, as Penn alleges, that the Department of Labor failed to adequately vet Leif Olson. It is that the Department of Labor failed to adequately vet Ben Penn’s reporting. It’s also newsworthy that Penn and his Bloomberg editors let the smear ever see the light of day. The just thing would be for Leif Olson to receive an effusive apology from the Department of Labor and immediate reinstatement. And for Ben Penn to receive the same treatment as George Eaton did in the Scruton contretemps: suspension and demotion, amid calls for his outright dismissal.

Editor’s Note:  An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Snopes commissioned opinion surveys about paraphrased Babylon Bee stories. The article has been corrected to reflect that Snopes promoted such a survey on its website but did not commission it.

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