When does making a joke at the expense of a fringe politician who also happens to be an anti-Semite become an example of anti-Semitism? When there’s a Trump angle involved, of course.
Bloomberg Law writer Ben Penn made a disturbing claim on Tuesday: One of the Department of Labor’s new hires had made comments regarding Jewish control of the media.
“Trump Labor Department’s new sr adviser Leif Olson posted on Facebook that Jewish media ‘protect their own,'” he tweeted.
“In response to my request for comment on Olson’s anti-Semitic post, [the Department of Labor] says they’ve accepted his resignation.”
SCOOP: Trump Labor Department’s new sr adviser Leif Olson posted on Facebook that Jewish media “protect their own.” In response to my request for comment on Olson’s anti-Semitic post, @USDOL says they’ve accepted his resignation. https://t.co/68kDvaFn0h
— Ben Penn (@benjaminpenn) September 3, 2019
This was pretty serious stuff. The problem was that Olson’s tweet was denuded of all context — and the context was pretty important.
In case you’ve forgotten about him, Paul Nehlen was a 2016 primary challenger for then-House Speaker Paul Ryan at a time when many Republicans were looking for someone to challenge the most establishment-y guy in the whole GOP firmament.
What they got, it became increasingly clear, was a bonafide alt-right degenerate, fond of conspiracy theories (particularly of the anti-Semitic type) and not particularly fond of anyone who doesn’t look exactly like him.
As The Daily Beast noted, he got banned from Twitter back in 2018 for a racist picture of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. That’s when he joined Gab, a so-called “free speech” social media platform that is popular among white nationalists.
He got banned from there too, which makes one wonder just what you have to do to get blacklisted from Gab.
Nehlen lost the 2016 primary, which gave Olson a chance to quip about it on Facebook, noting how Ryan “suffered a massive, historic, 70-point victory.”
Even Jonathan Chait, a fan of our current president in the same way your long-suffering wife is a fan of college football after you’ve watched 11 straight hours of it at full-bore volume on a Saturday, made it clear on Twitter just how flawed Penn’s report on the senior policy advisor — who had been in his job just 18 days — was.
In the post that got him fired, Olson was mocking Nehlen and the logic of his supporters: pic.twitter.com/IeBvkcvAJX
— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) September 3, 2019
Olson makes it clear, along with his friend, that he’s mocking alt-right dog whistles and that he has no truck with anti-Semitic theories.
After mentioning Ryan had won a massive victory over Nehlen in the primary, one of his friends joked that Ryan was “a neo-con, too, you know.”
“No he’s not. Neo-cons are all Upper East Side Zionists who don’t golf on Saturday if you know what I mean,” Olson responded.
“That’s what I meant. He’s a Jew. Everyone knows that,” the commenter replied.
“It must be true because I’ve never seen the Lamestream Media report it, and you know they protect their own,” Olson responded.
In other words, they weren’t repeating the tropes, they were making fun of them.
Overlooking this would be surprising enough if the full context had been overlooked. What’s more surprising is that it was in Penn’s article and that it was also in the explanation that Olson gave to Penn when he was interviewed over the phone.
“It was sarcastic criticism of the alt-right’s conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic positions,” he said.
And Penn even seemed to know that what Olson was saying was mockery, although he didn’t quite phrase it that way.
“Olson, an unsuccessful GOP candidate in 2012 for a Texas district court judgeship, 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,” Penn wrote.
“They then devolved into an exchange referencing two anti-Semitic tropes: that Jews control the media and that they look out for members of their own faith.”
The article also mentioned that Olson had “a history of advancing controversial conservative and faith-based causes in court,” cases that included “challenging the rights of same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled gay marriage is legal; intervening to block defrauded consumers from receiving $10 million that Target Corp. had agreed to pay in a class settlement; and urging the high court to invalidate the Obama administration’s policy giving certain illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.”
After Chait pointed out what was wrong with the article, Penn made it clear that he wasn’t all that upset about defaming a Labor Department because, hey, he was a bad guy anyway:
Lost in all of this is that Olson was part of a team of political appointees tasked with the heavy lift of drafting wage-hour regulations that are high priorities for Trump White House, business community. They’re now down one adviser. https://t.co/PZbIScDHqe
— Ben Penn (@benjaminpenn) September 3, 2019
Well, not really.
“On Friday, August 30, 2019, Senior Policy Advisor of the Wage and Hour Division, Leif Olson offered his resignation and the Department accepted,” a statement from the Department of Labor read, according to the Washington Examiner.
“Following a thorough reexamination of the available information and upon reflection, the Department has concluded that Mr. Olson has satisfactorily explained the tone of the content of his sarcastic social media posts and will return to his position in the Wage and Hour Division.”
This is a shameful abdication of journalistic responsibility, one that is deliberately tone-deaf to what Olson meant and painted him as an anti-Semite because the writer who broke the story apparently disagreed with Trump’s labor policies.
The only person who will end up suffering for this, thankfully, is Ben Penn, who tried to smear someone as an anti-Semite, then showed a total lack of remorse because it ended up kneecapping the Trump administration’s picks for the Department of Labor, and then realized he hadn’t done that at all.
While Bloomberg Law is essentially trying to pretend as if nothing happened, that’s probably not going to work in this situation.
Anti-Defamation League spokesman Jake Hyman, told Penn, “The post in question is clearly anti-Semitic.” The ADL would later say, “We appreciate Mr. Olson’s clarification that he intended to be sarcastic with his posts and accept his explanation of the content in question.”
Meanwhile, The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple said there was no “excuse for Bloomberg Law reporter Ben Penn” and his report: “Those ‘anti-Semitic’ posts are plainly sarcastic, rendering them not anti-Semitic,” he wrote.
While Wemple’s piece was the most excoriating, it was far from the only one. It’s rare in media circles that, if someone has the right target, they’ll be criticized for using the wrong ammunition. That’s how bad this hit piece was.
Olson deserves a retraction and an apology — but at least this time, it’s not needed to delegitimize the entirety of the attack against him.
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