David Frum presents himself to the world as a level-headed moderate, a man repelled by crazy fringe figures and conspiracy theories. The center-right pundit and former Bush speechwriter also recently spent a day declaring that three major media outlets were faking images from the Gaza war, borrowing this analysis from a blogger who thinks he once took a snapshot of a ghost-cat as it was dematerializing.
Here's the backstory. On July 24, Reuters, the AP, and The New York Times all published photos of two brothers in blood-soaked clothes at a Gaza hospital. The men's home had been destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, and the blood belonged to their father, who had been heavily injured in the attack. Frum then fired off a series of tweets pronouncing the photos fakes and speculating about why Hamas' propagandists had created them. The sole source for his accusations was a blog post by a fellow named Thomas Wictor.
I won't waste your time describing Wictor's argument, because at this point even Frum doesn't accept it. The photojournalism site BagNews thoroughly debunked the charges, and LobeLong scored an interview with Wictor that made it pretty clear that this was not a well-grounded man. (In addition to confirming that his ghost-cat post was not a joke, Wictor told LobeLong that you can safely conclude a Palestinian is a Hamas operative if he has a beard with no mustache.) Yesterday Frum finally retracted his accusations in a post at The Atlantic.
Frum's retraction was headlined "An Apology," but it's one of those yes-but apologies where the author spends most of his time making excuses for his error. Frum explains his "skepticism" about the images—that's what he calls it, his "skepticism"—in great detail, but he never acknowledges that his tweets were not simply skeptical: They swallowed Wictor's analysis uncritically, declaring forthrightly that the pictures were fake. Readers might also notice that while Frum apologizes to one of the photographers he accused of deception, he doesn't spare a single word for the people in the photo, though it is if anything even more offensive to accuse them of faking their grief.
I realize there's something absurd in trying to debunk conspiracy theories. People don't reason their way into them, and they are not reasoned out of them.
Now he has spent a day promoting a conspiracy theory of his own. And while he was eventually reasoned out of it—apparently you can do that after all—his retraction may still give you the impression he thinks the flood of bloody images from Gaza is some sort of Matrix that would vanish if we all popped the red pill.
Frum is also the guy who gave George W. Bush the phrase "axis of evil," in which those famous rivals, Saddam's Iraq and the mullahs' Iran, were supposedly secretly aligned. (That's what an "axis" is, you know. An alliance.) So the man is no stranger to dubious conspiracy tales. But he consistently describes that sort of thinking as though it's something those other people do, not a phenomenon you can see among establishment figures like Frum as well as fringy folks like Alex Jones. Let this episode be a reminder that paranoia can flourish at the top as well as the bottom of the social pecking order.