Human email newsletter Mike Allen is the face of Axios—the much-criticized but widely-read blend of insider scoops, conventional Beltway wisdom, and outside reporting condensed into “snackable” bullet-pointed lists—and he projects his all-knowingness with urgent promises that readers will get “situational awareness” and the like from him.
I will admit that, when Allen serves up news with “why it matters” in bolded text, I tend to bite. And I certainly did this morning on an item claiming that Sen. Chuck Schumer was the target of a fake document detailing sexual harassment allegations:
This was an apparent effort to dupe reporters and smear a senator — both symptoms of an amped-up news environment where harassment charges are proliferating and reporters have become targets for fraud.
Allen’s 13 subsequent bullet points—a positively longform-level number for Axios—detailed what many a flustered liberal Twitter user has come to call a “bad faith” attack on an institution. Schumer’s spokesman, “a source close to Schumer,” and the former Schumer staffer named as the victim of his advances all told Allen the document was bunk. Allen added that it was “shopped” to outlets including The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, BuzzFeed, the New Yorker, and ABC.
The source of this information was attempting to take advantage of the norms and processes within both politics and mainstream media in the hope of achieving their own sinister aims. But Allen’s concluding line left something to be desired:
“Be smart: Look for more hits like this, aimed at victimizing both reporters and public figures.”
Hm. Now that you mention it, there is one specific bit of information that would help me “be smart” about this disingenuous attempt to take down a senator and embarrass journalists: Who tried it. Provide us, your gentle readers, with some insight on who not to trust in this age of rampant misinformation. Burn the source.
The agreement that reporters don’t reveal their sources might as well be etched into stone as the First Commandment of Political Journalism, an orthodoxy even more strict for stories about palace intrigue. To some extent, this is useful: Reporters get interesting or important information in exchange for keeping those who shared it anonymous. The catch is that they have to weigh the public benefit of that information against the source’s motive. A source who unknowingly shares false information can be harmless, assuming that the reporter does their job. A source who does so knowingly—abusing the covenant for protection—is essentially trying to burn your house down.
Here is where I give you a Tuesday Facebook post by B-list conservative provocateur Chuck Johnson, who Gawker charitably described in 2014 as “the web’s worst journalist”:
Johnson may not be referencing the fake Schumer allegations, you say. Indeed, truly anything is possible when he and Cernovich—the Pizzagate conspiracist—are involved. But whatever they were up to, the intent is plain, and Johnson returned to the topic in a subsequent Facebook post Wednesday:
Now, you might argue that what Johnson is describing here constitutes “a tip.” Cernovich in particular operates in a grey area in this regard; BuzzFeed published at least one of his tips that proved to be true. More often, however, Johnson, Cernovich, James O’Keefe, and other emotionally repressed alt-right internet people purposefully take things out of context, share false information, or otherwise mislead reporters for the stated purpose of delegitimizing them. It’s a pattern of behavior. This is one of the defining features of the pro-Trump media world: They understand the rules, and they knowingly exploit them.
These clowns who desperately seek mainstream validation don’t deserve to have journalists uphold their end of the bargain. Allen has yet to name Johnson or Cernovich—or whomever it really is—as Axios’ source. And he won’t, of course, which will only entice more bad faith sources to follow suit.