Fired and e-bombed; James Bennet's mistake; Eric Ambler's satire on the journalistic propensity to make stuff up
I was fired from a contract editing job for demanding a source for a false narrative story that had been ordered top-down by the new managing editor. The same day, an e-bomb campaign inundated my mailbox with hundreds of fake invitations to change my password and subscriptions I hadn’t signed up for.
It’s a common method used to attack journalists who are attempting to do honest work. The idea is to interfere with the victim’s ability to communicate,
Why do storm troopers target a small fry like me as they do the likes of Joe Rogan, Bari Weiss, and the Weinstein brothers, Eric and Brett? How about this: They’re cowardly lumpen-ideologues bent on channeling questions into narrow concrete-lined channels.
I was chastised by friends and family for publicly disclosing the reason for my dismissal. They fear for my employability. I am concerned too, but I wouldn’t want to work for anyone who doesn’t despise lies.
To restore my equilibrium, I flew to Arizona to see an old friend, I drank gallons of water, ate Mexican food, kayaked on a reservoir among ancient volcanic rock formations, read about the undersea volcanism and tectonics of the local geology, visited the old bonanza mining town of Jerome, and marveled at the 1,000-year-old, 110-room hilltop pueblo at Tuzigoot.
While I was in Arizona, the saga of my woes played out in a larger ring when a judge ruled against Sarah Palin in her defamation suit against the New York Times. The case arose from a 2017 Times editorial linking a left-wing activist’s shooting of Republicans at a baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, to a long-discredited accusation that Palin had incited a 2011 mass shooting that wounded Democratic congresswoman Gabby Gifford. After the shooting, it emerged that Gifford’s shooter was mentally ill and not politically motivated.
My feelings about the Palin case are complex. I find the editor who took responsibility for the error, James Bennet, to be a sympathetic character. As editorial page editor, he hired the brilliant conservative Bret Stephens in an attempt to bring diverse voices to the stodgily Democratic editorial pages. For that, he was roundly abused by the paper’s lefty staffers, who eventually forced him out of his job in 2020 for the insane reason that he had published a U.S. senator’s opinion piece calling for federal troops to stop rioting and looting incited by Black Lives Matter.
Bennet immediately corrected the Palin piece after Times columnist Ross Douthat pointed out the error, and he tried to apologize to Palin. She sued, claiming he Times had an anti-Republican agenda, Which — let’s be honest — of course it does.
The question is, why did Bennet, who at least attempts to be fair-minded and has edited thousands of stories on deadline, make that particular mistake? Was he too arrogant to read the Wall Street Journal, where James Taranto debunked the lie about Palin years before? And why did his faulty memory dredge up a stale, discredited six-year-old accusation to make the claim that American politics are turning lethal?
Did he simply forget that the accusation against Palin had been debunked? Humans misremember things all the time, but that’s what editorial fact-checking is supposed to catch. Why did Bennet’s slip of the memory result in a whopper of a false narrative designed to turn a murderous shooting of Republicans into a false indictment of … Republicans?
To win a defamation case, a public figure must do more than prove the statement was false. The bedrock legal case in determining libel against public figures, NYT vs. Sullivan, requires plaintiffs to establish that a false statement was published with “reckless disregard” for the truth. The decision also used the phrase “actual malice,” although that is be almost impossible to prove.
Was Bennet malicious? I think narratives, as opposed to honest stories based on facts fathered from the bottom up, are mischievous creatures that can easily be turned into malicious weapons. Everyone can see that the Times water coolers are spiked with malice toward conservatives.
The Times should have lost the case for recklessly disregarding the facts.
These issues were all foreshadowed by Eric Ambler in his account of a twisted newsletter editor in “The Intercom Conspiracy” (Knopf, 2011):
He was great at starting hares. For him, anything that happened, simply anything, could be part of a plot or conspiracy. The smallest thing would set him off. Then away he’d go, piling suspicion on suspicion, twisting the facts if there were any, imagining them if there weren’t, until he had arrived at what he decided was the truth of the matter. Then I’d write it up and we’d print it.
No wonder they got mad at us in Washington. Every Senator and every Congressman – every Canadian and British M.P., too, for that matter – got a copy of Intercom, whether they paid their subscriptions or not. You’d be surprised how many of those hares we started ran and kept on running. Well, maybe you wouldn’t be surprised. You know a bit about politicians. They got so steamed up in Washington about one story we ran – some crap we’d cooked up about the range of a new Red Chinese nuclear missile delivery system – that the President himself had to issue a denial. That didn’t faze the General, of course. He loved denials. All he did was cable me to run the story again along with additional supporting evidence. He didn’t say where this additional supporting evidence was to come from, of course; that wasn’t his way.
And, of course, I didn’t waste time asking questions. As the whole of the original supporting evidence had been dreamed up, obviously any additional supporting evidence would have to be dreamed up, too. Naturally, I’d never have used a phrase like ‘dreamed up’ to him. That would have been like saying that good guys rode black horses. He believed what he wanted to believe, and he always knew that ”whatever he imagined counted as evidence.”