Lies, Statistics and News Reports
It’s rare for light to be cast on the origins of a rumor. But a recent revelation about a charge made against Chuck Hagel before his confirmation as Secretary of Defense does that – and might provide us all some illumination too.
(Contrary to what some have surmised, I didn’t and don’t feel there is enough hard information about the now confirmed Defense Secretary on which to make a judgment of his attitude toward Israel. As attacks mounted on nominee Hagel, though, I suggested that Jews should think twice and thrice before attacking a public figure for animus to the Jewish state on the basis of pickings as slim as those gathered to criticize him.
Several people, including some pseudonymic letter-writers to a magazine that published my article, took my suggestion that bandwagons are best inspected before being leaped onto as support of Mr. Hagel. I explicitly wrote, however, that he might well not make a good Defense Secretary, and that I can’t claim to know one way or the other. All that I pointed out was that, despite a maladroit phrase Mr. Hagel once used – for which he apologized – and unsubstantiated claims of a similar sin, there was no actual evidence for the charge made by some that the man is “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic.” I pointed out, too, that a Secretary of Defense does not make U.S. foreign policy, and that it behooves us American Jews, in a world containing all too many all too real enemies of Jews, to not imagine, or inadvertently create, new ones.)
An edifying postscript to the Hagel hubbub emerged this week. In the midst of all the sturm und drang over the nomination, a conservative website (a “news source,” as it happens, that the angry letters to the editor suggested I consult for my education) reported suspicions that Mr. Hagel had received foreign funding from a group called “Friends of Hamas.” The story, of course, spread across the blogosphere with the speed of a brazen lie, which is precisely what it was. There is no such group.
And this week, the tale of how the charge came about was told – by the fellow who originated it, albeit unwittingly.
New York Daily News reporter Dan Friedman explained how, digging for a story, he had asked a Republican aide on Capitol Hill if Mr. Hagel’s Senate critics knew of any controversial groups that he may have addressed. Had the nominee perhaps “given a speech to, say, the ‘Junior League of Hezbollah’… or the ‘Friends of Hamas’?” the journalist jocularly queried.
Not realizing that politicians and their aides can be humor-impaired, Mr. Friedman compounded his little pre-Purim joke with a follow-up e-mail to the aide, asking if anything had turned up about that “$25K speaking fee from Friends of Hamas?”
Before Mr. Friedman could say mishenichnas Adar, the website had its scoop.
“Senate sources told Breitbart News exclusively,” the report, by one Ben Shapiro, informed its readers, “that they have been informed one of the reasons that President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has not turned over requested documents on his sources of foreign funding is that one of the names listed is a group purportedly called ‘Friends of Hamas.’”
And so, other websites immediately ran with the fiction. For good measure, Mr. Shapiro tweeted the link to his nearly 40,000 Twitter followers. Countless inboxes welcomed the “news”; countless heads nodded knowingly.
Whether or not Mr. Hagel turns out to be a happy surprise or great disappointment, one thing is undeniable: Anyone who values truth – the “signature” of the Divine, in the Talmud’s description – must make painstaking efforts to be objective, and eschew the siren-call (to mangle a metaphor) of the bandwagon.
Lies, overt and subtle, large and small, are, unfortunately, the fertilizer (in both senses of the word) of politics today. They are regularly foisted upon us all from every political corner and by both major parties’ “activists.” We are being gently misled and manipulated whether our source of information is right-wing talk radio or NPR, Rush Limbaugh or Diane Rehm. True objectivity and fair-minded discussion are as rare as Yangtze River dolphins.
And so, if we really insist on having opinions about political matters, we do well to absorb different perspectives, to weigh them fairly and to realize, constantly and deeply, that not everything portrayed as obvious or fact is necessarily either.
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran
“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.
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