A Labor Department official has resigned after Bloomberg raised questions about a three-year-old, seemingly sarcastic Facebook post that appeared to mock the alt-right for its embrace of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Now the Bloomberg journalist is facing backlash for publishing the story on Tuesday.
In the 2016 Facebook post, Leif Olson, a senior policy adviser in the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, appears to mock Breitbart’s coverage of Paul Ryan’s 2016 primary election, which he won with 84 percent of the vote. Ryan was widely projected to defeat Paul Nehlen, an avowed white nationalist and anti-Semite who ran against ex-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) in 2016. Nehlen has sat for interviews with former KKK grand wizard David Duke, spouting tropes about Jewish people controlling the media. He was boosted by Breitbart leading up to the primaries.
Just hours after Bloomberg labor reporter Ben Penn contacted the Labor Department to respond to the 2016 social media post, a department spokesperson told Penn that Olson had resigned.
In a statement to the Washington Post on Tuesday, Bloomberg said it stood behind its reporting.
— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) September 3, 2019
The Labor Department did not immediately return TPM’s request for clarification Tuesday on the resignation. But journalists and lawyers on Twitter have lashed out at Penn, arguing that while the Facebook post does repeat anti-Semitic tropes, as Bloomberg notes in the piece, the tropes are clearly a sarcastic attempt to condemn the alt-right, Breitbart’s fawning over Nehlen and Nehlen’s candidacy in general that year.
“Establishment insider RINO corporate tool Paul Ryan was finally brought to heel in tonight’s primary election by an uprising of the conservative masses of Real America eager for an authentic voice in Washington instead of the same tired globalist open-borders pap they’ve been pushing on us since the Elites abandoned the People,” Olson wrote in the Facebook post, seemingly sarcastically calling Ryan’s 70-point margin over Nehlen a “massive, historic, emasculating” victory.
In the comments under the original post, another user wrote, apparently tongue-in-cheek, saying Ryan is Jewish, “everyone knows that.” The lawmaker is a devout Catholic.
“It must be true because I’ve never seen the Lamestream Media report it, and you know they protect their own,” Olson responded, according to screenshots taken by Bloomberg.
As Tablet noted, it appears that the screenshot that Bloomberg took of the Facebook posts cut off the thread prematurely. According to a screenshot of the 2016 post shared with Tablet, Olson goes on to directly admit to being sarcastic and calls out Breitbart’s coverage of the race.
The Bloomberg article mentions some of Olson’s past legal work, including his efforts to combat the rights of same-sex couples in Houston after the historic 2015 Supreme Court ruling. But in an interview with Bloomberg, Olson reiterated the tone of his post was not earnest.
“It was sarcastic criticism of the alt-right’s conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic positions,” Olson told Bloomberg. The ex-Labor Department official did not immediately return TPM’s request for comment, but he did issue a new Facebook post Tuesday, mainly addressing the past legal work surfaced in the Bloomberg piece.
“I never thought I’d see the day when making fun of alt-right anti-Semites led to being branded an anti-Semite, but here we are,” he wrote before offering his own clarification on his past work. “There was no ‘revelation’ of the Facebook post because there was nothing to reveal. It was publicly available on my feed from the moment it was published until last night, when I replaced it with screenshots that redacted commenters’ names to keep them from being harassed.”
Greetings, Bloomberg readers. I never thought I’d see the day when making fun of alt-right anti-Semites led to being…
Several journalists pointed out the ironic tone in of Olson’s initial Facebook post and criticized Penn, the Bloomberg reporter, for even reporting on it, and accusing the reporter of forcing Olson to quit his job for no reason.
This is blatantly a case of someone mocking an anti-semitic politician not making anti-semitic statements, seems very possible this person gets reinstated after the backlash to this story https://t.co/VUeba0qzOk
— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) September 3, 2019
This is aggressively stupid https://t.co/xxpnZWfHRq
— Lachlan Markay (@lachlan) September 3, 2019
Vile and disgraceful muckraking here from @benjaminpenn. “Journalism” at its very worst. Deliberate, willful misinterpretation in the service of destroying a good man. @olsonleif is a personal friend and is NOT an anti-Semite.
Bow your head in shame, Ben. https://t.co/kMUSHKqc9H
— Josh Hammer (@josh_hammer) September 3, 2019
When reached by TPM Tuesday, Penn declined to comment on the record, pointing TPM to Bloomberg’s corporate communications team. Multiple attempts to reach a Bloomberg spokesperson were not immediately successful.
Penn addressed some of the backlash in a tweet, clarifying his reporting efforts. He also posted a screenshot of a direct message he’d received from New York Post columnist John Podhoretz calling him a “repugnant child.”
To Leif Olson's friends & others who take issue with this reporting,
I sent a screenshot of a public FB post to DOL, seeking comment. 4 hours later I received this response: “Today, the Department of Labor accepted the resignation of Leif Olson effective immediately.” https://t.co/PZbIScDHqe
— Ben Penn (@benjaminpenn) September 3, 2019
— Ben Penn (@benjaminpenn) September 3, 2019
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