'Friends Of Hamas': How A Joke Went Wrong

Melissa Block speaks with Dan Friedman, who covers Washington for the New York Daily News, about how a question he asked of a source on Capitol Hill became the centerpiece for an explosive story spread by conservative media. Friedman says that in asking whether Chuck Hagel, who's been nominated to be secretary of defense, had received speaking fees from controversial groups, he made up the name "Friends of Hamas" as a farcical example. That name later surfaced on Breitbart.com, despite the fact that the group does not exist.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Among the many charges thrown at Chuck Hagel, as he seeks confirmation as defense secretary, is this one: that he received funding from a group called Friends of Hamas. That explosive claim first surfaced on the conservative website breitbart.com. It got traction and spread among conservative media.

Thing is there's no evidence that any such group exists, not to mention any evidence of a Hamas-Hagel connection.

So how did this all start? Well, reporter Dan Friedman, who covers Washington for the New York Daily News, claims he is inadvertently to blame. And it all started, he says, as a farce.

Dan Friedman, welcome to the program.

DAN FRIEDMAN: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Let's walk this back. There were rumors swirling about Chuck Hagel getting speaking fees from controversial organizations. Then you started looking into it, right? You called a source on Capitol Hill. What happened?

FRIEDMAN: I called a bunch of sources. One source that I called, I was trying to illustrate what I was asking about. So I was interested in did he speak to groups that would sound controversial, that would cause problems for his nomination? And I'd made up the example of Friends of Hamas. The other example I made up, I believe, is the Junior League of Hezbollah.

BLOCK: You made this up as a joke?

FRIEDMAN: As a - it was supposed to be hyperbole. It's a farcical, over-the-top example of a group that would sound on its face ridiculously controversial for him to have talked to.

BLOCK: You also, I gather, followed up on that conversation with an email to the source, asking specifically, did Hagel get a $25,000 speaking fee from Friends of Hamas? You raised a very specific question, a very specific detail there. Why did you do that?

FRIEDMAN: It was specific because I was trying to suggest to the person exactly the kind of information, except using hyperbole, the sort of thing that I wanted to see whether that existed. And I was trying to do it in a way that caught their attention.

BLOCK: It sounds like you did catch their attention.

FRIEDMAN: It apparently did. But, you know, the person, I never heard back from them. They didn't write back and say, wait, what is that? Is that real? And I didn't think about it until this weekend when I saw an article on slate.com, which pointed out that there was no such thing as Friends of Hamas, this group that conservative websites had been claiming that Chuck Hagel may have addressed or they had been informed by a Senate source that he had addressed.

And I sort of went back through the timeline and realized that the original article on breitbart.com ran the day after my inquiry. I asked February 6th. The article ran February 7th. It was sort of similar in a - distorted game of telephone, in a way, to what I had asked.

BLOCK: Well, Ben Shapiro of Breitbart says that his source says that you weren't the source of this Friends of Hamas line in the first place. Do you find that credible?

FRIEDMAN: I don't find it credible. I made this up. I didn't do it maliciously, but I made up this name. So it's hard to believe that three other people made up the same name the same day.

BLOCK: Well, Ben Shapiro says that you and other mainstream media are all part of the mission, in his words, to protect Barack Obama and Chuck Hagel. What do you say to that?

FRIEDMAN: I'm trying to avoid getting into a argument with Ben Shapiro and breitbart.com. It's sort of a back and forth. What I would say is that I was asking about information that would, if it was true, reflect negatively on Hagel. So that's just one obvious reason that doesn't make that much sense.

BLOCK: This Friends of Hamas notion has sort of turned into a bit of a feeding frenzy. Dave Weigel laid this out in Slate. The charge was picked up and propagated in interviews with Senator Rand Paul, with Mike Huckabee in a roundtable with National Review columnist Andrew McCarthy. Let's listen. This was on the Lou Dobbs show on Fox Business Network.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT")

ANDREW MCCARTHY: There was a report that came out last week - not confirmed yet, but we're also not denying it very vigorously - that one of the groups behind the speeches may have been an outfit called Friends of Hamas. That is not going to be...

LOU DOBBS: That has a ring to it, doesn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

BLOCK: And as Dave Weigel points out on Slate, there's absolutely no evidence that Friends of Hamas even exists. At worse, he says, it's as fake as Manti Te'o's girlfriend.

Dan, what do you make of how this allegation has ricocheted among talk shows and conservative media?

FRIEDMAN: Well, it has a ring to it because I made it up hypothetically as something that would have a ring to it, as a hypothetical, satirical example of a controversial-sounding group, not thinking that it would actually be propagated out there.

You know, I think that all of us, I have an obligation, you have an obligation, I do think Ben Shapiro has an obligation, just like Dave Weigel fulfilled the obligation to check these things and to check what is true and not just repeat unchecked rumors. And I'm not saying that I'm holier than thou. I think that I have a bit of culpability here. But I think if there's a lesson, it's don't just believe any goofball rumors that shows up on a website, left or right.

BLOCK: Dan Friedman with the New York Daily News. Dan, thanks for coming in.

FRIEDMAN: Thank you.

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