News outlets have a responsibility to be honest with their readers. They must also ensure that reporters don’t abuse the power that comes with a major media platform to try to dishonestly smear those with whom they disagree. And they must act to fix mistakes when they occur if they want their readers to trust them moving forward.
Bloomberg Law failed to live up to these responsibilities when it smeared conservative lawyer Leif Olson in a hit piece last month.
In August 2016, then-House speaker Paul Ryan defeated his primary challenger, Paul Nehlen, by close to 70 percent. Even at the time, it was clear that Nehlen was actively trying to appeal to the alt-right with a constant stream of bigoted comments. Olson took to Facebook and wrote a funny and clearly sarcastic post mocking Nehlen’s defenders. Shortly afterward, he followed up with another post explaining that he was specifically parodying a ridiculous Breitbart.com article that tried to make Nehlen’s defeat seem like a victory.
A private citizen’s mocking bigots and their defenders on his personal Facebook account would usually be a non-story, but here we are, three years later, and it has become one. Earlier this year, Bloomberg Law’s Benjamin Penn took a screenshot of Olson’s first post and started sharing it, with the intent to write a story claiming that it was anti-Semitic. Penn requested that the Trump administration, which had hired Olson as a senior policy adviser at the Department of Labor in August, comment regarding Olson’s supposedly anti-Semitic post. Penn even got the Anti-Defamation League to condemn the post in a statement that it later walked back. As is predictable in cases where institutions see a mob being formed, Olson was quickly forced to resign from his new position, which he’d moved his family across the country to take.
Penn’s story was full of dishonest insinuations and plain errors. Olson told him that the post in question was sarcastic, but Penn still framed it as anti-Semitic. Penn cut off the screenshot of the post to hide comments that referred to it as sarcasm. He also managed to get essential details about Olson’s background wrong. When confronted with these concerns, he doubled down. To their credit, mainstream and liberal reporters raised a tremendous stink about Penn’s malfeasance, and the Labor Department quickly reinstated Olson.
I can’t help thinking this isn’t quite the happy ending it appears to be, though. Even amid the outcry and Olson’s reinstatement, Bloomberg Law chose to stand behind Penn’s “reporting” until it retracted the story on Friday, more than month after it was published. Internal emails showed that the outlet tried to stop employees from commenting on the story. Penn publicly defended his actions by claiming that all he did was present the Department of Labor with a screenshot of the post and ask for comment, but an email recently obtained through a FOIA request by Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute’s Ted Frank shows that claim was also false. In asking the Labor Department for comment, Penn actually framed Olson’s post as “disparaging to Jews” and questioned whether Olson was “fit for government service.” Yet, Bloomberg Law refused to acknowledge that Penn or its editorial staff had done anything wrong for more than a month.
In an ideal world, major news organizations wouldn’t hire reporters who abuse their platforms to try to punish political opponents, and would have protections in place to ensure that type of abuse wasn’t possible. In this case, Bloomberg Law failed on both counts. It owes its readers and the public an explanation of why, and of how it plans to ensure that such mistakes aren’t made in the future. If it hopes to be treated as a credible outlet moving forward, it must do better.