A book written in 1938 is indirectly connected to Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer.
The book is Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh, and it’s a satire on sensationalist journalism. It’s about the goings-on at a newspaper called The Daily Beast. In 1938, the name tickled readers. Today, its online namesake Daily Beast, founded in 2008 and now holding a sizeable online following, focuses on politics, pop culture, and power, according to its editors. Two years ago, its editor in chief said it embraces “gonzo journalism,” a term that roughly means a style written without claims of objectivity and often includes the journalist as a first-person narrative. That places it well outside the bounds of traditional journalism, which is where it wants to be. This background helps one’s understanding when you look at a story it ran on July 14 on Songer.
The story claimed Songer deliberately manufactured wild rumors about Antifa and Black Lives Matter (BLM) organizations in 2020, saying the movements’ followers were trying to set wildfires.
“‘One of the methods Antifa is using to start fires is to take a mason jar with tinder placed inside the jar, put it in brush with the lid open, so the hot sun light will create a slow start which allows them to be out of the area before the smoke appears,’ Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer wrote in an email to officials throughout the state,” the story states. It says he sent the email on Sept. 11, 2020, the same day the FBI dismissed rumors about leftist activists starting wildfires in Oregon.
“Baseless rumors about leftists starting wildfires were predictable, especially as fire seasons worsen with climate change, experts say. But those hoaxes take on a new power when embraced by law enforcement,” the story said.
However one chooses to see Songer and his role in all this, the one key problem with The Daily Beast story is its assignation of deliberate motive to the sheriff—referring to his actions as a “hoax” and saying the rumors were manufactured—without verification. Did Songer send the email in question? He admits he did. Did he invent them out of thin air with an intention to deceive, as The Daily Beast claims? Songer says he got the information from a reliable source. But “gonzo journalism” doesn’t need to dig very deeply where it doesn’t want to. It reminds me of when I was at The Washington Times and we did a story on The National Enquirer. “Our stories are accurate,” an editor there told us. “We’re just careful not to report ourselves out of a story.”
Consider this: if the story had taken issue with Songer because he chose to send the email out of what it took to be his rightwing proclivities against leftist activists, that would be one thing. To say he invented the information with a view toward malicious deceit is entirely another.
“I got the information from a confidential source,” Songer says. “It tied some wildfires to Antifa and BLM and described their method of starting them.” Law enforcement officers, Songer said, frequently share tips with other law enforcement agencies as a professional courtesy and in the interests of public safety.
“I didn’t tell them this was an absolute fact,” Songer adds. “I was just trying to keep law enforcement informed.”
Songer says there was friction with the reporter from The Daily Beast, Kelly Weill, when she interviewed him for her story. Songer says she told him the FBI had dismissed the wildfire rumor. “I said, ‘OK, the FBI said that.’ And I got my information from a good confidential source,” he reiterates. Then he asked Weill where she stood politically. “I have a right to ask that,” he says of the question, and he says Weill paused for some time when he asked. He told her he suspected she leaned to the left and that would make their conversation short.
The Daily Beast story also spoke of a camper bus carrying a family that was attacked by overzealous Washingtonians because they believed it to be an Antifa transport vehicle. It mentioned Songer sent an email some months later saying the bus’s owner was associated with Antifa/BLM. Songer says his email could not have prompted the attack on the bus since it was sent long after, though Weill says he could have Googled the bus owner’s name and discovered what had happened.
“I sent the email again based on another confidential source,” Songer says. “As a public safety issue, I felt it was better to be informed than not. Look at the history of Antifa, what it did in Portland.”
The Daily Beast was obviously painting Songer with its crazy brush, depicting him as (at least) an underinformed rightwing loose cannon. As an opinion piece, it would entirely within its right to render that depiction. Where it inexcusably crosses a line is when, without substantiation, it calls his actions deliberate, wanton deceit built on fraudulent invention. Any media capable of doing that can be readily dismissed as without journalistic integrity, irrespective of where anyone stands on the matters in question.