Sworn statements in a South Carolina defamation case have lifted the curtain on one of the strangest episodes in the 2012 election cycle, in which Twitter briefly exploded with a false rumor that one of the Republican Party's brightest stars was about to be indicted for tax fraud.
The story was attributed by a blogger to "two well-placed legal experts" — but in fact the only sources for the post were, according to the blogger's new affidavit, merely another blog and a television reporter.
The blogger, Logan Smith, reported on March 29, 2012, that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley would soon be indicted on tax fraud charges stemming from work with the Sikh Religious Society, of which her parents are leaders; he also claimed that money was missing from the Sikh Religious Society, alluding to "shady finances." And his story immediately exploded on Twitter. Reporters from The Hill, CBS News, BuzzFeed, and others tweeted about the story, while outlets including the Daily Beast and Daily Caller put up short items, with the latter pulling down a coveted Drudge Report link for its trouble.
The Sikh Religious Society subsequently filed a defamation suit against Smith, which the parties have now settled. Smith did not admit to any liability as part of the settlement.
"I was wrong. I realize and believe the story about the Sikh Religious Society was incorrect," Smith wrote in apology to the group and Ajit Randhawa, Haley's father. "I hope you find it in your heart to forgive what I assure you was an honest mistake."
"Please know that I have never and do not now hold any malice toward you, the Sikh Society as an organization, or to the Sikh religion," Smith continued, in a letter dated Oct. 15 of this year.
In the settlement, Smith agreed to apologize in writing to the Sikh Religious Society and provide the "full and complete identity of the external source(s) (he) consulted before the articles were published."
Rob Godfrey, a Haley spokesman who worked in the governor's office at the time of the incident, said the "unfortunate episode" should serve as a lesson in a statement to BuzzFeed:
From the beginning of what was an unfortunate episode for the Governor and, more importantly, for the Governor's parents and their place of worship, we urged those charged with covering our office, in whom many place a great deal of trust, to proceed cautiously because we knew there was nothing to the allegations being pushed by anonymous, unaccountable bloggers and political antagonists," he said. "While it was encouraging to see some of these reporters wait for all of the facts before reporting, it was at the same time discouraging to see others put a premium on being first at the expense of being right — and we hope these revelations that highlight the absurdity of what they published, and the resultant embarrassment it causes their organizations, are lessons they carry forward.
The counsel for the Sikh Religious Society, Butch Bowers, also emphasized the social spiral of the story.
"While we're glad to see Mr. Smith apologize and admit that his story was entirely fabricated, this episode is a sad example of what happens when the mainstream media take as fact the lies of unaccountable, agenda-driven antagonists who think access to a website makes them journalists," Bowers said.
In fact, the story became a kind of demonstration case for the ability of false rumors to spread quickly and universally — if also to burn out fast. The New York Times examined the epidode in those terms, and CNN's Peter Hamby used it to chide reporters for tweeting without working sources in the state in a paper released this fall by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
The affidavit signed by Smith, obtained by BuzzFeed from a South Carolina source appalled by the incident, offers a glimpse into the report's origins, and a final twist to one of the strangest moments in recent political media.
According to the affidavit, FITSNews.com — a better-known, and extremely controversial, local blog — and WIS-TV reporter Jody Barr, along with public court filings, were the "only external sources (Smith) consulted." The document does not indicate whether Smith spoke to either of the sources before publishing or just consulted their reporting independently, and he would not comment on the matter to BuzzFeed beyond an emailed statement. Smith filed the sworn affidavit also on Oct. 15 of this year, as part of the settlement.
Barr did not respond to requests for comment from BuzzFeed.
FITSNews.com may be best known outside of the state for its founding editor, Will Folks, who claimed in 2010 to have previously had an affair with Haley.
Folks told BuzzFeed Saturday that he had only met Smith once at a forum discussion and in "no way, shape or form discussed any of this stuff."
"When we report that somebody's going to get indicted, it happens," Folks said of his site's coverage. "We have sources in the grand jury process. We never wrote that there was going to be an indictment."
Folks said Saturday that sources had told FITSNews.com an indictment was coming, but the site could not independently confirm it.
"We don't make mistakes like this idiot — this clown," he said.
If the episode illustrated the speed at which an obscure outlet can light a media fire, it also illustrated the speed and thoroughness with which such a fire can be quenched in the Twitter era. Haley and her aggressive, savvy staff pushed back on Smith's story immediately. "It is flat out not true," the governor told The State.
The next day, Haley she presented reporters a letter from the IRS stating no federal investigation was warranted for the period in question and that the matter had been resolved in the fall of 2011.
As for Smith, he said in an emailed statement that he is "very happy to be putting this matter behind me, and hold no ill will whatsoever toward the Sikh Society."
"I congratulate them on the recent opening of their new temple, and wish them many happy years of worship there. I fulfilled the terms of the settlement, which was accepted by the Sikh Society and did not involve an admission of liability. The bottom line is that I made a mistake in publishing the story, admitted to and apologized for my error, and the matter is now closed," he said.
Katherine Miller is the political editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Katherine Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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