THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE ‘LINKS’…. As media outlets scrambled over the weekend to better understand why Jared Lee Loughner allegedly went on a shooting rampage in Tucson on Saturday, Fox News said it had a scoop: the network had “obtained” a memo from the Department of Homeland Security connecting the shooter to a racist group called American Renaissance, and this memo was distributed to law enforcement agencies.

I held off on mentioning this, because of the source — the only thing less reliable than Fox News’ opinion journalism is Fox News’ attempts at investigative journalism.

I’m glad I held off. The network has already backed off its original reporting, and Greg Sargent talked to a DHS official this morning who said the agency has made no connection between Loughner and American Renaissance.

The Fox report caused a splash, with some news orgs reporting that anonymous officials had confirmed such possible ties. Some conservatives railed at DHS for supposedly trying to tie the shooter to the right for political reasons, and others disputed the suggestion that this displayed the shooter’s ideological leanings.

But DHS has not officially provided any such information to any law enforcement officials, the DHS official says.

“We have not established any such possible link,” the official says.

The official cautions it’s conceivable that a law enforcement official got unofficial info from a DHS official somewhere along the lines of what Fox reported. But he emphasizes that DHS has not even concluded in any official way that even the possibility of such ties exists. The official adds that it wouldn’t be DHS’s place to reach any such conclusion in the first place, since the FBI is leading the investigation.

In a situation like this, I’m a little more sympathetic to on-the-spot journalistic errors — rumors were rampant on mid-day Saturday, as evidenced by CNN and NPR reporting that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) had died — with reporters chasing down details in crisis-like circumstances.

But Fox News claimed it had a DHS memo that it didn’t, in fact, have, and the report affected the politics of the story in unhelpful and misleading ways.

Just as a matter of course, when Fox News claims to have a scoop about any subject, caveat emptor.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.