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This is Why Americans Trust Neither the Media Nor the Government

Leif Olson's resignation from the Labor Department is highly illustrative.
September 3, 2019
This is Why Americans Trust Neither the Media Nor the Government
(Photo by ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP/Getty Images)

Between 39 percent and 49 percent of Americans report having little or no trust in the news media. Less than half of the American public believes President Trump keeps his promises and more than half have little to no trust in Congress. Bloomberg Law reporter Ben Penn and the Department of Labor teamed up this week to remind the country that their mistrust is well founded.

Last month, Leif Olson started work as a political appointee at the Department of Labor. Back inn 2016, Olson had mocked Breitbart’s relentless promotion of anti-Semite Paul Nehlen’s primary against then-House Speaker Paul Ryan in a clearly sarcastic post on Facebook. He satirically aped the thinly veiled anti-Semitism common to Nehlen and Breitbart.

Penn then found the 2016 Facebook comments, took a screenshot that captured only part of the thread, and asked the Labor Department for a comment.

The Labor Department replied that Olson had resigned effective immediately, which Penn reported.

Caveat: It’s possible that Olson’s resignation had absolutely nothing to do with Penn’s inquiry. If so, it would be quite a coincidence. But the history of the Trump administration so far indicates that, purely as a matter of probability, any political appointee is likely to have some sort of scandal at any given time, so coincidence can’t be ruled out.

But, if Penn’s reporting did cause Olsen’s ouster, it’s hard to imagine a scenario more rewarding of cynicism.

Let’s start with Penn, who misled his readers in at least two ways. The first is how he framed Olsen’s 2016 comments. “Olson… fired off a series of late-night posts on his personal Facebook page three years ago that started as a sarcastic quip about former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s blowout primary victory.”

“Started” insinuates that the sarcasm developed into something else. Yet he provides no evidence that any of the comments Olsen made was meant to be taken literally. That’s tantamount to making up a fact. Reporters aren’t supposed to do that.

But that’s not all. Penn hid evidence that he was misinterpreting Olsen’s words. He failed to reproduce comments further down the thread in which commenters discussed Olson’s obvious sarcasm, and in which Olson identified Breitbart as the target of his mockery.

It takes a special kind of journalist to make up a fact, but only a really enterprising reporter can make up a fact that is directly contradicted by obvious, publicly available evidence. (See how easy it is to spot sarcasm?)

Penn should be ashamed, and Bloomberg should issue a mountain of corrections. And maybe apologize to Olson.

Not that it should have gotten that far in the first place. Doesn’t the Trump administration exist, in part, to stand up to politically correct outrage mobs? If the Department of Labor dismissed Olson because of Penn’s bogus report, they showed remarkable weakness in the face of – well, not even a mob, but one person!

This is exactly the kind of preposterous accusation that a competent, serious, conservative administration would laugh off. But instead, it looks like the Department of Labor rolled over within four hours of Penn asking them a question.

Penn devoted a large chunk of his report to the incompetence of the office in charge of vetting appointees, suggesting that they may have let an anti-Semite slip through the cracks. “The White House declined to answer any questions,” Penn reported, “including whether the Presidential Personnel Office reviewed Olson’s social media history, typically a standard step before signing off on agency political appointees.”

Of course, it’s possible — just maybe — that the personnel office did review the social media history and found nothing to complain about. Because calling out problematic white nationalist wannabes like Paul Nehlen is generally not seen as problematic itself. 

On the other hand,it may be that the administration is so incompetent, or so starved of top-notch talent, that staffers couldn’t be sure they hadn’t missed an obvious, public case of anti-Semitism. So when Penn confronted them with a sham of an allegation, they folded immediately. 

No wonder Americans don’t trust the media or the government.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.