On July 21, as USDA chief Tom Vilsack was profusely apologizing to Shirley Sherrod for her rush to judgment, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter went on the magazine's Gaggle blog to bemoan the way "the administration mishandled a manufactured scandal" and got played like a violin by the Fox News folks in the matter of the ouster of Ms. Sherrod.
Inveighing against right-wing smears and lamenting that "so-called journalists didn't do the most elemental checking before running with the story" on Sherrod, Alter reached back into the recent past in order to make his point, and wound up perpetuating the smear of former White House advisor Van Jones.
It was that 9/11 truth petition. Jones was the first victim of the ongoing smear campaign, but, sadly, having signed that petition, he did have to go.
The following day, Alter went on the Rachel Maddow Show to further draw the distinction: Shirley Sherrod was totally innocent; Jones was not. Prodded by Maddow, Alter agreed that, yeah, most of what got slung at Jones was false -- he wasn't really a convicted felon, he didn't spend six months in prison, he wasn't part of the Rodney King riots, Glenn Beck is a lying moron in promulgating all of the above -- but THIS part of the smear was true: Jones "signed a petition that 9/11 was a U.S. conspiracy." That was it. That was the charge that mattered. Everything else tossed at Jones, his intemperate comments, his rash youth, was dismissable. But the administration obviously couldn't keep a 9/11 Truther in the White House.
Maddow didn't challenge Alter on this (and thanked him for his "super interesting, well-informed take.")
And here we see the ultimate long-term problem with the Fox/Breitbart smear machine. When they throw everything at the wall, some of it goes right on sticking, even though it's all manufactured from the same substance. It simply doesn't occur to smart people like Alter and Maddow that the folks who stitched together the ACORN "sting" video and selected just the right clip from that Shirley Sherrod NAACP speech; the "news" operation that served up these concoctions as shocking evidence of Black People Behaving Badly; the folks who spun lies out of the air - lies which, for a little while there, were convincing enough to make pretty much everybody believe them -- just might have done exactly the same thing to Van Jones, artfully editing reality to make something look like something else. They might be doing the same thing all the time, not just some of the time.
And in fact, that's what they did. The Van Jones smear was as false as the ACORN smear and the Shirley Sherrod smear. Jonathan Alter still believes one part of it was true and is the reason why the White House, which was wrong to dismiss Sherrod, was right to kneel before Glenn Beck and force Van Jones out. But that part of the smear was as untrue as the Rodney King/convicted felon parts.
Here's Jones in an interview with David Roberts for Grist last March:
"Back in 2004, people came up to me at a conference, saying they represented 9/11 families and wanted my help and support. I said, 'Sure, I'm happy to help any way I can.' I didn't know their agenda or anything about what they were doing. They just, based on that verbal assurance, went and put my name on a website. They did the same thing to Paul Hawken and Jodie Evans. None of us ever saw the website or their atrocious, abhorrent language. They didn't have a signature from me. But by [the time all this came out], we were in something of a media firestorm. Even progressives who had stood with me were whipsawed by all that."
ACORN employees appeared to help a pimp and his prostitute smuggle underage girls into the country... but they really didn't. Shirley Sherrod appeared to proudly tell an NAACP audience that she was a racist who discriminated against a white farmer... but she really didn't. Van Jones appeared to sign a 9/11 conspiracy petition, but... he really didn't.
But Jonathan Alter and Rachel Maddow still believe he did.
The Fox/Breitbart school of smear is the gift that keeps on giving; the asbestos fibers that keep working their way into your lungs after you think you've recovered. The little cough becomes part of you. That tremor in your hand. A small rift in the fabric of reality torn by malicious fabulists that becomes a thing that everybody just knows, a lie assiduously confirmed and attended to by the people who should have defended the victim of the attack.
Hence the spectacle of a good Newsweek liberal proclaiming himself all wised up about right-wing smears while still playing Beck's bad boy, still dancing on the string pulled by the looniest of the Fox News loony tunes without the faintest idea that he is continuing to advance the cause of the Scary Negro Alert Program.
The recurring command from Fox, as Maddow would put it, is "Everybody freak out!" The response continues to be, even now, "Sir, yes sir! How freaked should we get, sir?" It's a response from people who should know better, whether they are members of Congress rushing to defund ACORN, leaders of the NAACP and the USDA rushing to condemn a "black racist," or a Newsweek pundit still dutifully defaming Van Jones one year later, reloading and re-firing the opening shot of this ongoing campaign; the shot that ensured that the strongest, smartest voice for clean energy and the transition to a green economy was silenced and tossed out of this administration at the behest of the worst among us.