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Anatomy of a Smear
How the Daily Beast tried—and failed—to tarnish my reputation.
Last week, the Daily Beast ran a story with a shocking headline: “Influential Anti-Woke Activist Is Open to Working with Racists and Fascists.” Even more shocking, as I read the first few paragraphs, the “influential anti-woke activist” in question was me.
According to the report by Jared Holt, I had hosted a X Spaces debate on the concept of “no enemies to the Right”—a variation on the French Revolution principle “no enemies to the Left”—during which one participant “floated an ear-burning idea” of “an armistice between the establishment Republican Party and the racists and fascists who are excited about its current trajectory.” By some property of guilt-by-association, Holt and the editors reasoned, I, too, held these views—so they attacked.
There was, however, one problem: The article and its claims against me were entirely false. As I wrote to the Daily Beast editors in protest: “I have never suggested in any way, shape, or form that I am ‘open to working with racists and fascists’— and your claim that I have done so is deliberately false, malicious, and defamatory, with a clear intention of tarnishing my reputation.” In fact, I told them, I have “repeatedly argued the opposite,” making the case against “right-wing racialism,” which, like its left-wing counterpart, critical race theory, is antithetical to American principles.
The editors didn’t even need to look through my past work to understand my view. During the announcement for the debate in question, I made it explicit, writing that, while some elements of the so-called dissident Right have disrupted stale orthodoxies, others have “fallen into some predictable dead ends,” such as right-wing racialism, which must be rejected. “Some elements on the fringes of any political movement are moral non-starters,” I wrote. “Anyone who has spent time in large organizations will recognize a plain truth: sometimes, addition is accomplished through subtraction. This might be even more true in politics, which has always attracted an element of the pathological.”
In addition, during the debate, I challenged supporters of “no enemies to the right” with a specific case illustrating the point. I asked the panelists what should be done in the case of someone like white nationalist Richard Spencer, “who is not only wrong morally, politically, [and] practically,” but serves as “a foil that is used by the Left to then tarnish the Right as a whole.” In other words, given such a repugnant figure, both a moral and pragmatic case can be made against the proposition “no enemies to the right.”
Now, the controversy. Following my challenge, one of the debaters, Charles Haywood, suggested that, despite his own opposition to a “clown” such as Spencer, in the hypothetical case that a right-wing racialist were to garner real political power—a situation analogous to the Spanish Civil War, he later explained—he would pragmatically work with such a figure in order to “destroy the power of the Left.” The debaters on the other side of the proposition, Neil Shenvi and Michael Young, the latter of whom worked as a researcher on my recent book, strenuously disagreed, arguing that it was imperative to “rebuke evil” in any of its forms.
This was the opening that Daily Beast writer Jared Holt needed to launch his attack against me. There is, of course, ample room for criticism of Haywood’s position. But Holt was not interested in this—he didn’t even mention Haywood’s name in the article. He was interested in taking Haywood’s controversial statement, assigning it to me through bad-faith transference, and then using it to tarnish my reputation and that of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, with whom I have worked on education policy. Think of the children’s game “telephone,” except, instead of innocuous babble, Holt’s game includes baseless accusations on behalf of a well-financed political operation.
Who is Jared Holt, and why might he be playing such a game? In a word, Holt is a political operative masquerading as a journalist. In his professional capacity, Holt is an employee of the George Soros-funded Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an international NGO that advocates for Internet censorship in the name of fighting “disinformation.” The irony should be obvious: Holt himself runs a prolific trade in disinformation, including the attempted smear against me, in an effort to damage the reputation of political opponents in the United States. Prior to his position at ISD, he did the same dirty work for the Atlantic Council and Media Matters, whose stock-in-trade is publishing hit pieces against conservative journalists.
Even for the Daily Beast, which has never enjoyed a reputation for high standards, Holt’s false and defamatory claims against me were too much. Hours after I contacted the magazine’s editors, they retracted Holt’s key claims, deleting the false headline, editing multiple paragraphs, adding additional material debunking Holt’s argument, and appending a 500-word editor’s note—more than half as long as the article itself—featuring my full rebuttal. Holt deleted his social media post featuring the defamatory content and endured significant criticism.
What are the lessons here? First, a prosaic one: Left-wing media outlets are more than willing to lie about opponents for political advantage. But second, an opportunity: Conservatives who are willing to defend themselves aggressively and have the resources to threaten legal action can force dishonest publications to concede, reversing the dynamics of such attacks. In my case, the attempted smear campaign did not damage me but instead the reputation of the Daily Beast and Jared Holt. Had they not relented, it could have hurt them financially, too.
This is not my first experience with malicious editorials. I have forced significant retractions from Newsweek, the Washington Post, New York, and other publications. In all instances, my formula has been simple: I meticulously debunk the false claims in written statements to the publication’s top editors, simultaneously make my case to the public to apply external pressure, and, after winning retractions, highlight the victories on social media, hoping to encourage others. For false claims that could significantly damage my reputation, I have had legal counsel provide additional pressure.
The other irony of this exchange is that it reveals why conservatives have been attracted to the “no enemies to the Right” formulation in the first place. The apparent desire of Holt and the Daily Beast was to create a denunciation cascade: in response to the article, Governor DeSantis would denounce me, I would denounce the debate participants, and the debate participants would, in turn, denounce one another. But, in truth, each of us is responsible for his own opinion. There is no obligation to participate in a malicious left-wing smear campaign. The best method of defeating malign ideologies is to bring them to light, submit them to public debate, and win. I have argued against the position of racialism, in both its left-wing and right-wing forms, and that is enough.
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This article was originally published in City Journal.