Breitbart and the Art of the Unsupported Smear

Conor Friedersdorf has a quote from an old Breitbart.com article from late 2011 that contains an absolutely staggering claim, with no attribution and no evidence whatsoever, a claim so ridiculous and so important that any editor would stop dead in his tracks on reading it and demand that the reporter show him his evidence. This is the claim, which is about LBJ during the 1964 campaign:

Journalists on the campaign trail saw Johnson drunkenly board a plane armed with nuclear weapons and then accidentally drop them on the United States. Luckily, by the grace of God, they did not go off. None of this was reported, while newspapers editors worked in overdrive to portray Goldwater as eager to push the button.

Friedersdorf responds:

How I love that passage. It isn’t just that it appears without attribution, as if the reader should accept such an anecdote without citation. What’s so priceless is that, even in a scenario where it improbably proved to be true, a writer and editor would still have just slipped it into the article as a casual aside, quietly achieving the biggest buried lede in history. Adds the next sentence, “Today, pundits argue that dirty tricks by Carville and Begalia [sic] were something new on the horizon for Democrats and were borrowed from decades of Republican campaigns. But Johnson was a pioneer of the Clinton War Room.” A near nuclear disaster is mentioned not as something to dwell on or condemn, but as incidental example of the actual subjects to be dwelled upon: liberal media bias and how it enables the rotten tricks that those evil Democrats play during political campaigns.

But it’s even worse than that. The claim is absurd on its face. What “plane armed with nuclear weapons” could Johnson ever have been on? Air Force One doesn’t have nuclear weapons to drop, for crying out loud. And it’s not like he rode around on bombers. No one could possibly believe that this is true, yet the author casually drops it in to an article and not one person in charge of the website ever said a word about it. It’s still there in the article to this day. Because reality just doesn’t matter to these people.

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  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    …A near nuclear disaster is mentioned not as something to dwell on or condemn, but as incidental example of the actual subjects to be dwelled upon: liberal media bias…

    That’s what makes it effective: the reader is thinking about something else entirely, so they’re less likely to consciously question an allegation that’s slipped in as an aside. This enables the subconscious to assimilate it into its gut-level feelings and prejudices while the conscious mind is occupied with other matters. I’m sure Brietbart’s readers will henceforth go about saying things like “I heard somethere that LBJ dropped a nuke on Americans ’cause he was drunk! Damn, don’t that just reinforce all our shared prejudices?!”

  • Phillip IV

    Utterly bizarre. I guess now that I’ve convinced their audience that they shouldn’t trust anything coming from the mainstream media, because they’re all in the tank for Obama, they’re trying to simply extend that conspiracy theory backward in time: All democratic presidents were much worse, and all Republican presidents much better, than commonly known, because the media have had a left-leaning bias since the invention of the printing press.

    Next up: The Three-mile Island Incident happened because Jimmy Carter drunkenly pissed onto the control console, but the press hushed it up. And the Rambo movies were originally a documentary on the private life of Ronald Reagan, but the media just didn’t want you to know how awesome he was!

  • mithrandir

    If LBJ were still alive, I’d have said they just wanted to make the sonofabitch deny it.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  • keithb

    “Broken Arrow” incidents are really big deals. There is no way this would have been kept secret. Especially, if it occured over land in the US.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broken_Arrow_(nuclear)#Broken_Arrow

    Though there was an interesting one in 1965 which wasn’t “acknowledged” until 1981.

  • Trebuchet

    Utterly off-topic, but FTB is displaying weirdly this morning. When the main page loads, it starts out looking normal but then all the post titles switch to a very small font. The same happens to the post text in the individual blog. And as I’m typing this reply, it’s also in the tiny font.

  • Trebuchet

    And, lacking an edit function, I’ll add that when the comment appears it’s in the normal size. This is almost as strange as anyone believing anything on Breitbart!

  • raven

    That LBJ got drunk and almost nuked the USA is old news.

    The current news is that our president is really a Kenyan born, atheist, Moslem terrorist. Who is controlled by the Space Reptiles.

    Poll: 45% of Republicans don’t think Obama was born in the USA ...

    latimesblogs. latimes. com/…/poll-45-percent-of-republicans-think-oba…

    Apr 21, 2011 – Republicans don’t believe that Obama was born in Hawaii. …. That at a low birth rate hospital for the serial number on Mr. Obama’s certificate of …. that Barack was born in Kenya, in what sounded to be a very honest response.

    45% of the GOP actually believes this. Tens of millions of Theopublicans wouldn’t believe an absurd lie. Or would they?

    For a lot of people, the “reality based community” is a bad place.

  • gwangung

    You saw their typical behavior with ACORN and Shirley Sherrod.

    The better question is, “When are they NOT lying?”

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com tommykey

    That’s why I shake my head when I see cars in the road with bumperstickers that read “I Don’t Believe The Liberal Media.” It’s not liberal bias that’s the problem, it’s that they’re corporate owned.

  • oranje

    @Phillip: I had a student come in, the first day after the election, and announce that the world is going to hell. That “every major war with loss of life we’ve been in was started by a Democrat.” etc.

    Projected back in time indeed. Who needs context?

  • kermit.

    So, was LBJ flying the plane? I remember as a kid being allowed into the cockpit for a short visit. Maybe they let LBJ in also, and he drunkenly pulled a lever…

    .

    You said it, though, Ed. I can imagine LBJ drunk, but I can’t imagine they ever had him on an airplane with nukes – probably only on Air Force One.

    .

    These folks are so low-information that they can’t evaluate stories like this even were they so inclined to do so. Which they’re not.

  • caseloweraz

    Science fiction writers take note: On Breitbart’s World, anyone can stumble onto a bomber armed with nuclear weapons. There is no such thing as physical security: No military police, no guard dogs, no surveillance nor intrusion sensors, not even locked doors on the planes.

    But wait, it gets better. Whoever stumbles onto such a nuclear-armed bomber, even if in a drunken state, can all by himself release all the nuclear weapons while simultaneously flying the plane all alone — there obviously being no need for more than one crew member with everything automated, and no codes or interlocks to prevent unauthorized weapons deployment.

    /snarc

    Not even a ten-year-old child could fail to see what nonsense this is!

  • iknklast

    oranje @10: I had a student that told me (after the 2008 election) that we didn’t have a president. We had an illegal imposter. And my dad routinely sends me e-mails detailing all the ways in which it has been proven beyond any possible basis for argument that Obama is not legally eligible to be president. Oh, and liberals.

  • caseloweraz

    OT: Just in case anyone is wondering about the advert that accompanies this post, it is for a science-fiction trilogy called “Trilisk” about artifacts left by an alien race of that name.

    I am unfamiliar with these tales. But the covers are interesting. In the first, it looks like the man holding the rifle is about to get an elbow in the gut. Serves him right for allowing the muzzle to swing off to the side.

    Also, the women shown in the advert seem to be wearing portions of form-fitting spacesuits. Of course, in the future all women will wear form-fitting spacesuits because… Never mind.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    caseloweraz, TV Tropes covered it. (Warning: Going to TVTropes will burn off three hours of your life)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1360322113 aaronbaker

    Is Breitbart.com the Stupidest Fucking Website in the World? Perhaps not, but it deserves an honorable mention.

  • http://www.literateperversions.com Chris Hall

    Several people have mentioned the issue with the font, but I thought that I’d get a little more specific. Using Firebug to look at the CSS, it looks like your issue is a result of the NowTalk widget that’s appearing in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. There’s a stylesheet called default.min.css that’s being imported from nowtalk.com with the following snippet:

    #content {

    background-color: #FFFFFF;

    font-family: Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif;

    font-size: 11px;

    height: 100%;

    width: 100%;

    }

    Naturally, the font-size selector is what’s causing the issue, by making your body text appear at 11 pixels.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Just wait ’til they come across Paul Krassner’s account of LBJ riding on the plane that took JFK from Dallas to DC!

  • Michael Heath

    Trebuchet writes:

    FTB is displaying weirdly this morning. When the main page loads, it starts out looking normal but then all the post titles switch to a very small font. The same happens to the post text in the individual blog.

    That’s happening to me as well. However it did lead to some cross-eyed entertainment. Breitbart:

    Journalists on the campaign trail saw Johnson drunkenly board a plane armed with nuclear weapons and then accidentally drop them on the United States. Luckily, by the grace of God, they did not go off.

    At first I read this while squinting that Johnson was drunk and carrying some nuclear bombs in his arms, which he then inadvertently dropped out of the plane. Of course this is illogical, but but since we can’t provide any benefit of doubt to Breitbart.com, that’s what I thought I read the first time. The second read, accurately understood, wasn’t much more logical.

  • twincats

    Non military personnel aren’t going to get within any sort of accessible distance to any aircraft, bunker or (base, even) that contain nuclear weapons unless they are very special indeed. A presidential candidate would not make the cut. He or she might get a photo op a safe distance away, maybe not.

    Oh, and having participated in at least half a dozen broken arrow exercises in the 80’s, I can tell you that nukes don’t explode because of a sudden impact with the ground, either. They have to be, you know, DETONATED on purpose by at least two military officers under orders from the POTUS. The point of a broken arrow exercise is containing and cleaning up nuclear contamination from leakage which is what does happen because of sudden impacts.

  • Pieter B, FCD

    @ Pierce R Butler

    I got it.

    So not only did LBJ get drunk, commandeer a plane armed with nukes, take off and drop them over the USA, but he let the campaign reporters get on the plane with him ?