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.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Lessons drawn from the Zengerle/TNR debacle

(updated below)

On Friday, I wrote a post stating -- based on abundant evidence I had compiled that was indisputable and conclusive to all but the most fact-free eyes -- that an e-mail published by Jason Zengerle on the website of The New Republic was fraudulent. The e-mail was one purportedly written to the Townhouse list by Steve Gilliard, and it was clear that Zengerle's claim was false because no such e-mail was ever sent. Zengerle's silence over the weekend led a variety of right-wing bloggers and their commenters to spend the last two days calling me a liar, mocking my claims, giddily exchanging juvenile jokes with one another over my paranoia, and generally insisting that my accusation was false and baseless.

Jason Zengerle finally responded last night and, in doing so, confirmed that every single thing I said was, in fact, true:

Steve Gilliard claims that he did not write the email I attributed to him in this post. After doing some further investigating, I'm afraid to say that he is correct. He did not write that email. I apologize to Gilliard for not checking with him before publishing my post, and I regret the error.

I am going to do my best to avoid flamboyant displays of celebratory vindication and instead focus on what I think are the substantive issues illustrated by this episode. But having spent the weekend being called a "liar" by several of the most integrity-free bloggers on the planet, that is going to be a difficult challenge, and you should consider this a warning in advance that I will likely be imperfect in fulfilling that aspiration (what I do promise is that this will be my last post on this issue, and I will post later today on the truly big story of the weekend -- the vicious, all-out, and truly unAmerican calls for the criminal prosecution of (if not physical attacks on) our nation's most influential newspaper). These are the issues I think are worth noting from the Zengerle episode:

(1) Numerous bloggers -- who had no evidence of any kind and did not need any -- spent the weekend writing and/or approvingly linking to posts which stated or strongly implied that I was lying when claiming that the Gilliard e-mail was fake and/or that I had no basis for the accusation. The honor roll includes:

Tom Maguire - in a post entitled "Glenn Greenwald's career in comedy," he wrote:

Somehow that seems to change the balance of probabilities a bit, especially since the "fake" email makes the same point as the two authentic ones - why, one might wonder, would Mr. Zengerle bother to gild the lily with a fake email supporting two real ones? And does it seem "highly unlikely (to put it mildly)" that Zengerle would have three sources confirming two genuine and one fake email? . . .

What a tangled web we weave.

Maguire's characteristically glib, evasive and substance-free attack on my integrity then, as intended, led some of his commenters to say -- without contradiction -- things such as this:

I guess Geenwald is taking the TruthOut approach. That my story and I am sticking to it.

and this:

So Gilliard has just subtly admitted he has allowed fellow traveler, I mean Townhouser to make a total fool of himself?

Could it get any funnier? I wonder if Gilliard will get in more trouble for embarrassing Glenn or betraying the trust of the cult, I mean Townhouse?>

Jeff Goldstein - here ("Is Glenn Greenwald having a bad day or what?" and linking to The Commissar's claim (below) that I was lying) and here (claiming that I was "coaxed" by Kos into doing the "potentially libelous work" against Zengerle)

Various commenters of Goldstein's, such as Kent, then said things like this:

Given the well-documented history of duplicity on the part of Greenwald: #4—”4. The e-mail was indeed sent to the Townhouse e-mail list, and both Greenwald and Gilliard are lying.“—would be the simplest, and (therefore) most likely explanation.

Instapundit -- here (approvingly linking to the Maguire post and excitedly calling it "Comedy Gold!").

The Commissar - here ("I’d say that Greenwald’s much-vaunted credibility has just taken a hit") and here ("I am done and disgusted, Glenn. Your misrepresentations here are positively Rovian").

And there are plenty of others who, needless to say, followed along, applying a whole range of derogatory attributes to my credibility and judgment this weekend for having pointed out that the Gilliard e-mail is fake and, beyond that, that TNR's journalistic behavior in printing it was questionable at best. And then there were countless other individuals who came here to comment on the original post I wrote who accused me of lying, having lost all integrity, etc. etc. (see, for instance, here ("To be honest, you're looking pretty pathetic and desperate, and odds are you'll be burned big time on this")).

All weekend, people who had no evidence or proof whatsoever that the Gilliard e-mail was authentic were insisting -- in the face of waves of evidence to the contrary -- that the e-mail was authentic and that I was a liar, a moron, a hysteric, etc. Their desire for the e-mail to be authentic, and for me to be wrong, swamped any assessment of the evidence. They swarmed together to make assertions which were plainly false and for which they had no proof, and then used their groupthink to confirm the rightness of their claims (they wallowed in an orgy of incestuous links to one another, all of which were evidence-free and reasoning-free -- not to mention wrong -- as though the endless references to one another constituted "evidence" which justified their accusations).

That is significant because a willingness to ignore waves of evidence and assert plainly false facts that they want to believe are true is -- as I have argued many times before -- the predominant mental attribute that has governed our country over the last five years. It is that corrupt dynamic that explains how things are going really well in Iraq; how Saddam really did have WMDs when we invaded; how the chaos and anarchy in Iraq is the fault (and invention) of the news media; how Saddam personally participated in the 9/11 attacks; how terrorists did not know before the New York Times story in December, 2005 that we were trying to eavesdrop on their telephone calls; how terrorists did not know before this weekend that we were trying to monitor their bank transactions; how Bush is really popular and most of the country agrees with him and that data to the contrary is due to flawed and biased polls, etc. A desire for a fact to be true is sufficient to embrace it as true, even with no evidence that it is, and even in the face of abundant evidence that it is false.

Personally, if I told my readers that another blogger was lying or was drowning in paranoia when making certain claims, only for those claims to turn out to have been true all along, I'd be quite eager to retract my accusations and apologize for them as clearly and prominently as I could. I can't think of anything that would be a more immediate priority than that. But it goes without saying that different bloggers have different ethical standards which guide them, and in the case of some of the above-named bloggers, some are entirely unburdened by such standards at all.

Of all of these brave accusers, only the Commissar came close to an undiluted retraction of his false accusations ("the facts have borne out Greenwald’s contention. I stand corrected. He is no liar"). Maguire pathetically continues to insist that I really was wrong, and Maguire right, and that Zengerle's confession that the Gilliard e-mail was fake somehow does not really support my claim. Instapundit simply inserted an "Update" to his original post composed of the link to Zengerle's post along with a recommendation to read Maguire's continued insistence that I was wrong, and he then separately quoted Zengerle's retraction, but himself said nothing in the way of a retraction. And Goldstein is just deafeningly silent. Put another way, most of the false accusers are true to mendacious form.

As I said all weekend once these accusations against me were launched -- accusations I truly did not expect in light of how obvious and clear it was from the beginning, based on the evidence, that the Gilliard e-mail was a fake -- all I could do was wait until Zengerle confessed that the e-mail was fake, and we would then see the level of integrity and reliability of the accusers. That's what we are now seeing.

(2) Numerous commenters here demanded that I address the "substance" of Zengerle's claim that "liberal bloggers" are taking orders from Markos Moulitsas with regard to what they write. I have not addressed that accusation precisely because there is no "substance" to it, and there still is none. It is idiotic fantasy, based on nothing, and does not deserve a response. Although in my original post I did say that, for those who need a response, I found the responses by Ezra Klein and Max Sawicky more than persuasive.

I am not interested in trying to persuade anyone that I have not altered my opinion, expressed a political opinion which I do not hold, refrained from expressing an opinion which I wanted to express -- all because Markos directed or requested that I do so. Anyone who believes that is willing to believe accusations based on nothing, and is thus, by definition, someone who is not amenable to rational persuasion. The accusation is as baseless as it is offensive, and one is no more obligated to respond to such evidence-free accusations than if someone came and said: "hey, I heard you were a child molester - what do you have to say in response?" Revealingly, in his confession post, Zengerle -- in order to obscure his own journalistic failings -- repeats this accusation against me despite lacking any evidence to support the attack ("the seeming acquiescence of so many of these liberal bloggers (including Greenwald) to Moulitsas's demands").

Having said that, I'll make anyone a deal -- if anyone can present a shred of evidence, just an iota of proof, that I have ever altered a single opinion, expressed an opinion I do not hold, or refrained from expressing an opinion that I wanted to express, due to an order, directive or request from Markos, I will be happy to respond to these accusations. Until such time, they are not worth responding to, because they amount to nothing other than evidence-free fantasy. Neither Markos nor Jerome have any real leverage over any blogger that I know of -- and certainly have none over me -- and the notion that they control or dictate what is written here, or that I would change what I think in order to accommodate their desires, is nothing more than a desperate attempt to smear people's motives and attack their integrity with no evidence of any kind (see this weekend's shenanigans for an illustration of how that works). It is too transparent and frivolous to merit a real response.

(3) As for Jason Zengerle's confession, it is impossible to understand how he can continue to protect the identity of his "source" which he now admits: (a) furnished him false information; (b) purported to quote from an e-mail which does not exist and never did; and (c) refuses to respond to his inquiries or explain himself in any way. That "source" clearly fed Zengerle false information with the intent that he would print it, and Zengerle -- in an act which even he admits was journalistic sloppiness -- then printed it. What possible excuse is there to continue to protect the identity of a "source" who almost certainly deliberately fed him false information?

As for the persuasiveness of Zengerle's excuses for printing a false e-mail, I adopt in full this well-reasoned post from Lindsay Beyerstein, which makes clear that Zengerle and The New Republic still have questions to answer, to say the least.

UPDATE: Steve Gilliard -- who went out his way over the weekend to be extremely fair to Zengerle (more so, I believed, than was warranted) -- now lambasts the inadequacy of Zengerle's confession and TNR's ongoing refusal to do what they should in response to this "error":

I don't think Zengerle has handled this well, and this grudging article tries to minimize the gross error he has committed.

I don't think this is a minor error, nor does Frank Foer. Zengerle attributed to me words I have no record writing and is still protecting a source who sent him an e-mail which cannot be verified. He admits that he doesn't have have the headers to the e-mails he was sent from the list and then gracelessly raises the same issues for which he has relied upon on at leastone unverifivable e-mail for. . . .

Glenn Greenwald isn't the only one demanding that you reveal your source for my e-mail. . . . And I'm sorry, I don't think this is minor or a disraction. I find it unseemly to attempt to defend yourself after commiting a major breach of journalistic ethics by repeating the unproven charges which landed us here in the first place.

This stoppped being about Kos the minute TNR published an e-mail which they cannot confirm coming to me.Then it became about their ethics and practices.

I agree entirely with all of that.

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I will be on the Alan Colmes Show tonight at 11:06 p.m. EST to discuss How Would a Patriot Act? Conservative Mark Coffey, who is a Bush supporter, wrote an impressively fair and thoughtful review of the book here.

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