A journalistic failure: How the Kevin McCarthy rumors spread

What happened to Kevin McCarthy is disgraceful.

I’m not talking about the congressman feeling pressured into withdrawing from the speaker’s race—that’s politics. Even as a majority leader with a big edge, he didn’t feel he could unite the fractious Republican caucus and would probably have suffered the same frustrations as John Boehner had he eked out a win. And McCarthy admits he hurt himself with his tone-deaf comments about how the Benghazi committee had knocked down Hillary’s poll numbers, making the whole enterprise look political.

No, it’s the fact that McCarthy is battling unproven rumors that he had an affair, rumors that the media should never have made public. And the same goes for Renee Ellmers, the North Carolina congresswoman who has dismissed the allegations as totally false.

Once upon a time, media outlets didn’t report such matters without something resembling proof—an on-the-record accusation, emails, photos, divorce documents and the like. But this was a classic whispering campaign.

We don’t know how much of a factor this was in McCarthy’s decision to withdraw, but it can’t have made the situation pleasant.

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    The rumors surfaced on a conservative site called GotNews.com, run by Charles C. Johnson, who was suspended from Twitter after soliciting money -- for his news site -- for "taking out" civil rights activist DeRay McKesson.

    On Sept. 25, GotNews reported this “EXCLUSIVE: #Boehner’s Replacement Is Carrying On Long Running Affair with Congresswoman.”

    A lawyer for Ellmers sent GotNews a cease-and-desist letter, calling the rumors “unequivocally and indisputably false.”

    The rumors got picked up by Erick Erickson, the founder of the widely read conservative blog Red State, who recently announced he is leaving the site. Erickson recently made news when he disinvited Donald Trump from an event.

    The rumors were also picked by conservative columnist Matt Lewis at The Week, and reprinted in his blog at the Daily Caller:

    “Many conservatives are buzzing over rumors — and let's be clear, they are unsubstantiated rumors that both parties deny — that McCarthy had carried on an affair with Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.).”

    Lewis and others cited a veiled letter from North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones asking “that any candidate for speaker of the House, majority leader, and majority whip withdraw himself from the leadership election if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican Conference, and the House of Representatives if they become public.”

    Erickson also cited an email he and others had gotten from an unnamed conservative activist, saying: “Kevin, why not resign like Bob Livingston?” Former congressman Livingston, who was poised to succeed Newt Gingrich as speaker in 1998, resigned after Hustler’s Larry Flynt threatened to reveal he had had multiple affairs.

    With all this buzzing on the right, the rumors soon became the lead story on the liberal Huffington Post and were played on other left-leaning sites. Johnson, at GotNews, congratulated himself on ending McCarthy’s bid to run the House. (He also ran a piece with this headline: BREAKING, DC SOURCES: Renee Ellmers, Kevin McCarthy to Resign?”)

    The story soon became unavoidable—even more so when the Homeland Security Department launched a probe into whether an employee had changed McCarthy’s Wikipedia page to mention the alleged affair.

    Now keep in mind, as this has bounced around the media landscape, that no one knows whether these rumors are true. I have no idea. I do know that Ellmers has flatly denied them.

    Here is Erickson’s explanation of his role:

    “The media has gone into a feeding frenzy and I recognize I’ve been a part of it over the last 24 hours. Lots of rumors are thrown out there. I view my role here as keeping you abreast of what people are chattering about in Washington and will update posts throughout the day as rumors die and new ones come about.

    “But it is worth noting that had I not posted on the emails to McCarthy and Ellmers, it might not have gotten out there. Matt Lewis and I both knew they were there and we wrote about them. I think they explain the missing piece of the puzzle as to McCarthy’s sudden withdrawal.

    “Neither of us accept the rumors as true, but the rumors were deeply relevant to the story.”

    I find this mind-boggling.

    Journalists and commentators hear rumors all the time. Some are false, some are true, some are of dubious relevance and others are impossible to prove.

    To say that we have an obligation to publish them because they are “out there,” because people are “buzzing about them,” is an abdication of responsibility. It reduces us to gossip-mongers at best, smear merchants at worse.

    How would any of these people feel if a false and scurrilous rumor about them was publicized simply on the theory that others were whispering about it?

    Erickson closes by saying: “It does not matter that the rumor is not true — but who in their right mind would want to subject himself, his family, and his colleagues to something like that?”

    I have respected Erick for a long time, but this is bizarre.

    “It does not matter that the rumor is not true”—really? Is that what journalism has come to in 2015?

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