Bloomberg Law finally retracts article accusing Leif Olson of anti-Semitism

Last month a reporter named Ben Penn published a story at Bloomberg Law which insinuated that a Department of Labor employee named Leif Olson had posted some anti-Semitic tropes on his Facebook page. Olson was fired and Penn seemed to be celebrating his first scoop on Twitter. Only it turned out he had gotten the story completely and hopelessly wrong.

As the actual Facebook page demonstrated, Leif Olson had never made anti-Semitic comments. His entire post was intended to mock the Paul Nehlen campaign after its humiliating loss to Paul Ryan. Nehlen had a habit of posting anti-Semitic statements on social media (his account was suspended so I can’t post specific examples) and Olson was merely imitating that kind of Jewish-conspiracy mindset. In other words, what he meant was the opposite of anti-Semitic, it was mocking anti-Semitism.

The Department of Labor eventually reversed course and rehired Olson, but Bloomberg Law stood by its story. Until today:

Why did it take them a full month to get there when they knew the story was completely wrong within about 24 hours? In a note to the staff from the Editor in Chief, he explained the site had “spent the last few weeks reviewing our coverage.” Here’s the full memo:

It’s possible they’d have come to this conclusion on their own but I think Bloomberg Law was pushed, so to speak. Recall that when the story broke, reporter Ben Penn claimed he had “sent a screenshot of a public FB post to DOL, seeking comment.” And the next thing Penn knew, he was informed Olson had resigned. But it turns out that wasn’t quite accurate. Writing at Reason, Josh Blackman points out the results of an FOIA request to the Department of Labor revealed the actual query Penn sent:

First, Penn wrote:

“In particular we are focusing on an August 2016 Facebook post in which Mr. Olson made a remark that references two anti-Semitic tropes. Screenshot is attached. These posts remain public at the time this email is being sent.”

This message is extremely misleading: Leif’s remarks “referenced two anti-Semitic tropes” to criticize anti-semitism. Penn’s use of the word “reference” was deliberate. He did not say that Leif made anti-semitic comments, or engaged in anti-semitic acts. This precise use of language suggests Penn knew that his claim of anti-semitism was, at best, tenuous.

Second, Penn wrote:

“Does the Labor Department find comments that are disparaging to Jews acceptable for a senior appointee?”

Again, nothing Leif wrote was disparaging to Jews. I doubt the people at DOL had the ability to parse through the grainy Facebook screenshots, and figure out their context. Penn’s failure to provide the context is journalistic malpractice.

Penn’s query was sent on a Friday before Labor Day. He said his deadline was “COB” but in fact, the story didn’t go up until the following Tuesday.

But the real issue is that Bloomberg Law has had the emails Penn sent the whole time. They knew weeks ago that what he had asked wasn’t a fair reading of the Facebook posts. And yet, they left their story up. It certainly looks like they sat on what they knew hoping people would forget about it. Only when people outside the company pushed the issue by revealing the contents of the query publicly did they finally decide to retract the article.

This may turn out to be another case where a reporter digging up old social media posts gets canned but once again it’s not solely the fault of the reporter (who’d only been at Bloomberg Law a few weeks). The editors who approved the article ought to have known better even if the reporter didn’t.