I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Does The New Republic have a new Stephen Glass in Jason Zengerle?

(updated below - updated again - updated again)

Over the last few days, Jason Zengerle of The New Republic has been engaged in a bizarre crusade to depict "liberal bloggers" as a bunch of mindless, obedient zombies who take orders about what to write from Markos Moulitsas, all in order to ensure that they can continue to enjoy the great financial wealth lavished upon them by virtue of their participation in the "Advertise Liberally" network, which Markos founded but does not operate. To prove this "point," Zengerle published what he purported to be various e-mails regarding recent accusations against Jerome Armstrong, which Zengerle claimed were sent to the "Townhouse" Google group -- comprised of 300 or so journalists, political operatives, bloggers, advocacy organizations, and others designed to facilitate communication between these usually isolated groups. To the extent the "substance" of Zengerle's accusations are worth responding to, Ezra Klein and Max Sawicky (among many) have done so quite thoroughly, respectively here and here.

But in spinning his laughable conspiracy, Zengerle published -- based on what Zengerle said was "three sources" -- what appears to be a completely fabricated e-mail, which Zengerle falsely claimed was sent to the "Townhouse" list by blogger Steve Gilliard. Yesterday, Zengerle wrote:

At the risk of engendering more charges that I'm violating the off-the-record nature of "Townhouse" (which, by the way, I'm not, since I am not a member of "Townhouse" and therefore am not bound by any off-the-record agreements, in the same way that any reporter who's leaked "confidential" documents is not bound to protect their confidentiality), let me reprint some of the e-mails that were going to the "Townhouse" list, according to three sources, before Kos sent out the e-mail I quoted in my original post on this topic. . . .

Also on the same day [June 18], the blogger Steve Gilliard wrote to the "Townhouse" list:

I dont see how this can be ignored. We should all write in defense of this once we know the facts. Jerome?

That e-mail is completely fictitious. Gilliard never sent any such thing to the Townhouse list, nor did anyone else do so. Nor, according to Gilliard, did he ever write any such e-mail at all, to Townhouse or anyone else. Zengerle caused The New Republic to print a completely fabricated e-mail and then falsely attribute it as one Gilliard sent to the Townhouse list. How and why did that happen?

What makes this all the more disturbing is Zengerle's claim that he was "re-print[ing] some of the e-mails that were going to the 'Townhouse' list, according to three sources . . . " It is difficult to see how Zengerle's claim about his sources could be true, to put it generously. It is highly unlikely (to put it mildly) that three different sources would send Zengerle the same fabricated e-mail and falsely tell him that it was sent by Gilliard to the Townhouse list. And it is equally unlikely that three different sources would confirm that Gilliard sent an e-mail that he, in fact, simply never sent.

Zengerle owes his readers and The New Republic an explanation, and soon. Did Zengerle really have three sources for these e-mails (as he claimed), or did he simply receive things from an anonymous source and then blindly rely on the veracity of what he was sent, only to claim that it was from "three sources" in order (a la Jason Leopold) to enhance the credibility of his claims? Or, a la Stephen Glass, did Zengerle simply fabricate e-mails in order to bolster his "story"?

It is one thing for a journalist to make a mistake; like everyone, they all do that at some point. But to expressly lie about your sources in order to make your assertions seem more substantial is as serious a journalistic breach as can be committed. Is this what Zengerle did?

In the wake of Yearly Kos, the profile of both Markos Moulitsas specifically and the "liberal blogosphere" generally has been raised significantly. Whereas old, obsolete opinion-makers like The New Republic, Joe Klein and David Broder first attempted to ignore the blogosphere, and then belittle it, they are now forced to accept that its influence and credibility are growing and are rendering them obsolete and irrelevant. And, unsurprisingly, they are quite unhappy about it, feel threatened by it, and are searching for ways to attack back.

That's all fair enough, and to be expected. If one believes (as I do) that the influence of the blogosphere is growing and that it is supplanting the stagnant, soul-less pundits of the mainstream media, it is only natural that those pundits who are being swept away will feel hostility and resentment. It used to be that writing for The New Republic brought prestige and influence. Now, thanks in large part to the growth of the vibrant and novel voices in the blogosphere, writing for The New Republic is a ticket to irrelevance, if not widespread mockery. As a result, people like Zengerle -- who believe that, as "journalists," they are superior to the unwashed blogging masses -- resent the blogosphere and want to do what they can to destroy its credibility. None of that is surprising or all that notable.

But in this case, did Zengerle's pretentious and obviously intense resentment of bloggers -- which I wrote about long ago -- lead him to make false claims about his sources? We know that Zengerle purported to print an e-mail from Gilliard to the Townhouse list which is a fake. The question now, for Zengerle, is why he did that. There were widespread calls for Jason Leopold to disclose his sources once his "sources" led him to print false claims that Karl Rove has been indicted. Shouldn't that same standard be applied to Zengerle?

UPDATE: To clarify the basis for my statement that the e-mail quoted by Zengerle was not one that was sent to the Townhouse list: When I read Zengerle's post (for the first time today), I recognized the other two e-mails to the Townhouse list which were quoted in Zengerle's post (one from Mike Stark and one from me), but did not remember -- at all -- the one attributed to Gilliard. Since I participated in that discussion, I was quite attentive to it, and would have remembered that Gilliard e-mail if it had been sent.

I then checked my in-box (which retains all e-mail received) and there was no such e-mail from Gilliard (I would have received it if, as Zengerle claimed, Gilliard sent it to the Townhouse list). I then sent e-mails asking whether anyone else had received such an e-mail, and multiple individuals (who are on the Townhouse list) confirmed that they also never received any such e-mail. Gilliard then confirmed by e-mail that he did not send such an e-mail.

It is beyond dispute that -- contrary to Zengerle's allegedly three-sourced assertion -- no such e-mail was written by Gilliard to the Townhouse list. It is a fake. The question, then, is whether Zengerle was telling the truth about the "three sources" who supposedly provided Zengerle with this fake e-mail.

UPDATE II: There are several recurring questions/objections/comments in the Comment section in response to this post, which I reply to here.

UPDATE III: Well after I posted this, Steve Gilliard wrote a post about this topic in which he said this:

Only problem: I have no record of sending such an e-mail to the Townhouse list, Kos, Armstrong, who did not participate in any of the discussions, or anyone else. I didn't send any e-mail with that phrase at all.

That is about as definitive as it gets. Gilliard has no e-mail at all -- to Townhouse or anyone else -- with the phrases quoted by Zengarle, which is exactly what I said he said in this post. Nonetheless, in an excess of caution, Gilliard goes on to say this:

To be fair, I told Glenn I disagreed with the characterization of it being false, because I may have express (sic) some kind of sentiment close to that.

Steve told me he disagreed with my characterization that the e-mail was "false" in an e-mail long after this post was posted, which is fair enough, but I disagree with Steve's view. If -- as Gilliard says -- he never sent an e-mail as quoted by Zengarle, then the e-mail printed by Zengarle is a fake, regardless if Gilliard expressed similar sentiments elsewhere (and he has no record of doing so). Gilliard can say that he is unwilling based on these facts to accuse Zengarle of printing a fake e-mail, but I am not so unwilling, because everyone acknowledges -- and it is beyond dispute -- that Gilliard sent no such e-mail to Townhouse , which is what Zengarle claimed. Moreover, Gilliard himself says he did a comprehensive search of his e-mails and found no such e-mail to anyone.

Nonetheless, certain bloggers are intent on distorting the meaning of Gilliard's post to depict it as somehow being in conflict with what I wrote. It is nothing of the sort. Gilliard confirms the two facts I stated in this post: thbat (1) he never sent any e-mail quoted by Zengarle to the Townhouse list, and (2) he searched his e-mail and has no record of sending such an e-mail to anyone. That is precisely what I said.

And, e-mails sent to me by Gilliard prior to my posting this post (which Gilliard discussed and characterized in his post and I therefore feel comfortable re-prtinting) confirm that Gilliard's e-mails to me prior to this post confirm everything I wrote. Following are (relevant excerpts of) three separate e-mails sent to me by Gilliard prior to my posting this, all sent on Friday:

EMAIL # 1:

I can't find any such words for June 18 either.

I sent three e-mails to townhouse on that day and NONE of them have those words. At least, he's innacurate about his sourcing.

E-MAIL # 2:

I just checked my name and Jerome Armstrong with gmail searchand I said nothing
about him on the 18th at ALL. So where do we go from here?

EMAIL # 3:

I can't find anything for that on the 18th or 19th at all. I do not find any e-mail using that phrase referring to Jerome Armstrong in June 2006, until this e-mail [the one I wrote in which I re-printed Zengarle's post].

Gilliard's e-mails were as clear as they could be. He stated definitively that he never sent any such email to Townhouse (a fact which is proven independent of Gilliard by the fact that no such e-mail was ever received by the Townhouse list), and he stated further that he did a search of all of his e-mail for June, 2006 and there was no such e-mail to anyone.

Let me be as clear as I can be. I re-iterate my statement that the e-mail printed by Zengerle is fake. Scores of individuals on the Townhouse list have confirmed that Gilliard never sent any such e-mail to Townhouse, and Gilliard has said the same thing. He also says he has no record of sending such an e-mail to anyone. Contrary to the claim of Zengarle or his "three sources," it was never sent by Gilliard to the Townhouse list. Thus, what Zengarle reported -- allegedly based on three sources -- is indisptuably false.

The e-mail was simply fabricated by either Zengarle or his sources. Zengarle can esaily prove that the e-mail is authentic. So far, he has been silent. He will either produce the authentic e-mail or retract what he wrote and explain why he printed a fake e-mail. There's no need to keep speculating. We ought to have the answer from Zengarle soon enough. I hope it will be sooner rather than later.

UPDATE IV: In light of the difficulty (most of it intentional) which some are having in understanding the relevance and implications of Zengarle's publishing a fake e-mail, I highly recommend this post from Lindsay Beyerstein, who spells it all out as clearly as can be.

And, as I have said multiple times, all of this speculation is really unnecessary, since Jason Zengarle will (presumably) soon respond to these accusations and let us all know whether the e-mail is fake or not. I not only look very forward to that moment, but also to what I'm certain will be the candid and straightfoward acknowledgments of error by those bloggers and commenters who spent the day giddily claiming that the e-mail was authentic and/or that no basis existed for the claim that it was false. In case it slips their minds, I'll be sure to remind them.

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