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Dana Milbank Owes Glenn Beck an Apology and Readers a Correction

John on August 4, 2010 at 10:56 am

It’s not fair to blame Beck for violence committed by people who watch his show.

This tiny journalistic fig leaf appears midway through Dana Milbank’s latest article for the Washington Post. The remainder of Milbank’s 750 word piece is devoted to blaming Glenn Beck for violence committed by those who watch his show. Or, more specifically, the violence of two specific men who had watched Beck’s show.

The first is Byron Williams, a two-time felon who was on parole, out of work, and living with his mother. Two weeks ago, Williams was stopped by police en route to “start a revolution” by killing members of the ACLU and the Tides Foundation in San Francisco. We don’t know where Williams heard about the Tides foundation, but based on an interview with William’s mother, Milbank implicates Beck. Of course this is, at best, guilt by televised association. Glenn Beck has never met Williams or encouraged him or anyone else to take up arms against the Tides Foundation (or anyone).

And this turns out to be Milbank’s best argument.  When he tries to offer the proverbial 2nd point required to draw a line, he blows it completely:

In April 2009, a man allegedly armed with an AK-47, a .22-caliber rifle and a handgun was charged with killing three cops in Pittsburgh. The Anti-Defamation League reported that the accused killer had, as part of a pattern of activities involving far-right conspiracy theories, posted a link on a neo-Nazi Web site to a video of Beck talking about the possibility that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was operating concentration camps in Wyoming. The killings came after Beck told Fox viewers that he “can’t debunk” the notion that FEMA was operating such camps — but before he finally acknowledged that the conspiracy wasn’t real.

Here’s what really happened. On the morning of March 3rd, Beck appeared on Fox and Friends and teased a story about the so-called “FEMA camps” (air-quotes his) which would be run on his show later that day. During this morning appearance, Beck did say that, so far, he couldn’t debunk the rumors and he briefly seemed to say that there was something threatening about what the government was doing. However, he also made clear (twice) that these supposed sites were empty. So when Milbank writes that Beck was talking about FEMA “operating concentration camps in Wyoming” that’s simply not true. He did talk about “camps” using scare quotes, but he never suggested these were operating, i.e. full of prisoners.

Later that day, instead of running the promised story, Beck backed off. He announced that he was working on getting the facts and would return to the story when he was certain. He then had a one or two minute discussion about the story with Ron Paul before moving on to other topics. As you can see here the conversation with Paul was not an endorsement. In fact, he poured water all over it. The discussion begins with Beck saying “there’s a lot of crazy stuff being said about these things…” Ron Paul replies “there’s no evidence that I can find that they are actually set up…” and Glenn Beck interjects from off screen “None.” The segment ends with Beck saying “I want to make it very clear, I’m not fearing these things are happening. I want to set the record straight because we’ve go to know what we can believe in.”

The next day, on the white supremacist website Stormfront, a user with the handle “Braced for Fate” posted a You Tube clip of the exchange between Beck and Paul. He introduced it with just three words, “He backed out.” I’m not linking to Stormfront, but here’s a screenshot:

Who is Braced for Fate? He’s Richard Poplawski, the man who a couple weeks later shot three cops in Pittsburgh. In other words, not only did Beck acknowledge the conspiracy wasn’t real well before the shootings (contrary to Milbank’s claim), we even have proof that Poplawski knew he’d done so. Poplawski didn’t post the Beck clip because he found common ground with the host. He posted it because he was disappointed that Beck was not a believer in the FEMA camp conspiracy theory.

The ADL page that Milbank linked to in his story leaves out this rather significant bit of context. As a result, Milbank passes on their error. But he can’t be completely excused. If he’d bothered to watch the clip in question, he’d have known that Beck was very far from endorsing the FEMA camps conspiracy. But regardless of who is ultimately responsible for the error, a correction is due and, quite possibly, an apology to Glenn Beck.

Just to recap for the benefit of the Post’s beleagured fact-checkers, there were three errors in one paragraph:

  1. Beck never said FEMA was operating concentration camps.
  2. Poplawski didn’t post the clip of Beck because it supported his views.
  3. Beck stated his distrust of the story well before the shootings.

Finally, I can’t let this go without noting how Milbank’s treatment of Beck differs from his treatement of Barack Obama. Back in 2008 when Sarah Palin began talking about candidate Obama’s connection to semi-reformed terrorist Bill Ayers, Milbank made no secret of the fact that he found this sort of guilt-by-association distasteful. He also didn’t like Palin’s mentioning Obama’s connection to his pastor and friend of 20 years, Jeramiah Wright. He described Palin as “angry” for publicly connecting Obama to the two men. And yet, fig leaf aside, Milbank writes this whole piece broadly insinuating that Glenn Beck encouraged violence by two strangers. Actually, write might be too strong a word. Milbank appears to have done a lazy rewrite on this piece by Media Matters hack Eric Boehlert which appeared four days earlier. In any case, Milbank’s double standard on guilt by association would be bad enough, but as you can see, he didn’t even bother to get the facts straight.

Oh, one more thing…Greg Sargent, who recently wrote on his Washington Post blog that the left media doesn’t make context errors like this ( “These reporters would never run with a video like the one leaked to Breitbart without making a serious effort to contextualize it and determine its significance and accuracy.”) might want to revise and extend his remarks.

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