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Rep. Anthony Weiner, pictured above, interviewed with CBS and other news outlets about the "Weinergate" photo he says was posted on his Twitter by a hacker. (Credit: CBS, screenshot detail)

The media’s online reporting of an alleged hack of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s social media has dissolved into gossipy back-and-forth as journalists and bystanders speculate on the incident.

The media coverage began Friday night after a tweet from Weiner’s account containing a photo of bulging boxers was sent to Gennette Cordova, a 21-year-old female journalism student from Seattle.

Cordova issued a statement to the New York Daily News, calling the rumors surrounding her “so outlandish that I don’t know whether to be pissed off or amused, quite frankly.” (See Cordova’s complete statement here.)

According to the statement, Cordova first became aware of the photo after tweets were sent to her from an account that had “harassed” her before in the past month.

A joking tweet from Weiner’s account May 28 stated shortly thereafter that he had been hacked. It stated:

“Tivo shot. FB hacked. Is my blender gonna attack me next? #TheToasterIsVeryLoyal.”

Since Saturday, Cordova said in the statement, she has been accused of being the “Femme Fatale of Weinergate” and “the self-prolcaimed girlfriend of Anthony Weiner’” due to a prior tweet from her account that called Weiner her “boyfriend.”

“Contrary to the impression that I apparently gave from my tweet, I am not his girlfriend. Nor am I the wife, girlfriend or mistress of Barack Obama, Ray Allen or Cristiano Ronaldo, despite the fact that I have made similar assertions about them via Twitter,” Cordova said in the statement.

Since then, Weiner has hired a private security firm to investigate the incident, though he has yet to take the incident to the authorities, the Los Angteles Times reported.

Weiner told reporters at the U.S. Capitol on May 31 that the incident was simply a “distraction” from his work and that he was not going to ask the FBI for an investigation, according to the LA Times.

“I just don’t think it rises to that level,” Weiner stated to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer..

Weiner sparked even more media interest on Wednesday when he refused to say in several interviews whether or not the picture was of him. In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, he stated that the photo “may have been ‘taken out of context,’” but could not definitely say whether he was the man in the photo.

Much of the media’s coverage on the incident has been faulty at its best, and accusatory at its worst.

Newsmax.com published an article May 31 entitled “Dem Weiner Fights to Control Lewd Photo Scandal” containing highly suggestive phrases, including:  “Despite the denials, the congressman and the journalism student have a past — at least online.”

The article noted later that the inappropriate tweet could easily have been made public when it was meant to be private, implying that Weiner may have meant to send the photo privately.

“It takes only one wrong keystroke (‘@’ instead of ‘d’) for a private Twitter message to go public,” Newsmax.com commented.

Additional speculation has focused on whether or not the Twitter incident was a hoax orchestrated by right-wing opponents of Weiner.

  Breitbart

Conservative news site Big Government, led by Andrew Breitbart, was the first media outlet to pick up the story. In 2010, Breitbart was the first to post videos of conservative students James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, who videotaped themselves in early 2010 posing as a pimp and prostitute while seeking tax help from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), iMediaEthics has previously reported. The ensuing controversy caused the group to disband.

Last July, Breitbart posted two short excerpts of a speech to the NAACP from Shirley Sherrod, Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The excerpts, which seemed to portray Sherrod as discriminating against a white farmer, instigated a controversy which resulted in Sherrod’s forced resignation, according to CBS News. A later review of the full-length speech revealed that the remarks had been taken out of context.

Breitbart reportedly contacted Weiner’s office for a statement shortly after the tweet, later tweeting at Weiner, “Still waiting for a response. We have more to ask you about. A pattern is emerging,” and “Just call it ‘constituency outreach’ and be done with it. We have much more. Need confirmation or denial.”

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Breitbart’s reaction to the incident led one blogger to suggest that he was directly involved in the incident.  Blogger “Stef” on liberal website DailyKos denounced Big Government’s coverage of the incident, calling it “Breitbart’s latest faux-scandal targeting Rep. Anthony Weiner” and asked, “Was Breitbart in on it, or did he fall for it?”  “Stef” also suggested that the screenshot of the controversial image that Big Government published had been manipulated and that Breitbart could be part of a hoax.

Breitbart tweeted at the blog’s editor, “‘Facts?’ Are you kidding me, @markos?  @Kos has ludicrous article on me based on false info & absurdist conjecture!”

New York Post

The gossip continues with the New York Post in May 31’s column “Too many coincidences in Weiner’s tale,” listing a number of details that the author finds “suspicious” about the incident, including a tweet from Weiner prior to the incident that mentions “what time an East Coast interview would be shown in Seattle, where the  young lady’s from.”

The Post’s article also points out the deletion of Cordova’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as her bylines in her college newspaper articles, as “suspicious.”

Cordova, however, claimed that she removed her Internet presence as a defense against harassment.  “I removed my information because I, believe it or not, do not enjoy being harassed or being the reason that my loved ones are targets of harassment,” Cordova’s statement reads.

Notwithstanding the debate about these supposed clues, the media has pitched a circus tent around Weiner and Cordova under which any fact or accusation may be relevant to the incident.

Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher stated May 30 that the incident has become a “roiling petri dish of new media sickness, as the rush to judgment has overshadowed the fair presentation of the facts.”

Fascinating questions?

The story was an important example of the complicated relationship between social media and public officials, Mediaite’s managing editor, Colby Hall told iMediaEthics. Hall also wrote an article on the incident for Mediaite.

“The reason why we chose to report and cover the story is that I think that it raises a lot of fascinating questions about social media platforms, elected officials, behavior of elected officials and the possibility for digital fabrication,” he said to iMediaEthics.

However, he added the online media and blogosphere are not necessarily “called to the same standards of journalism.”

“Lots of bloggers love to keep these stories going regardless of a lack of new facts and clear developments, which is why the bubble of information continues to expand. Sort of a sad commentary on the Internet echo chamber,” he wrote in an email to iMediaEthics.

iMediaEthics has contacted all media outlets mentioned in this article and will update with any response.

UPDATE: 06/06/2011 6:14 PM EST:  In a June 6 press conference, Weiner admitted to exchanging graphic photos over Twitter and Facebook with six women, ABC News reported.

Weiner had meant to directly send the controversial tweet to Cordova, but “panicked” when it appeared in public and lied that he had not sent it, USA Today reported.

Weiner said that he has had inappropriate conversations with women online and over the phone, but “did not have a physical relationship with these women.”

Weiner denied using government resources for any of the communication and apologized for what he called a “deep weakness.”

UPDATE: 06/12/2011 5:30 PM EST: Have updated to reflect that Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government website was the first (and not just one of the first) websites to report “Weiner’s Twitter scandal.”  Also, originally we wrote that the New York Post’s  “Too many coincidences in Weiner’s tale” column was published March 31.  It was published May 31.  Thanks to Yes but However’s John Romano for letting us know!

UPDATE: 08/03/2011 11:00 AM EST: Added missing quotation mark and clarified one sentence.

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