Blogs > HNN > Reporting about Rumors is Tricky but Legit

Dec 17, 2007 7:38 am

Reporting about Rumors is Tricky but Legit

The New York Times today reports on a journalistic brouhaha regarding a front-page Washington Post article from November 29, 2007, entitled: “Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him.” Claiming that the Post piece spread and legitimated the false rumors, the Columbia Journalism Review called the Post article “the single worst campaign ‘08 piece to appear in any American newspaper so far this election cycle.” But the criticism of the original article strikes me as unreasonable – and the Times article itself shows that the Washington Post article was fair and within acceptable boundaries.

The major objections to the article pivoted on the classic problem that simply refuting rumors perpetuates them, immortalized in the old Borscht Belt routine that “no, your honor, I did not beat my wife.” As I read the article, the meaning of the word “rumors” – placed in the headline and repeated in the text -- makes it clear that this article is about false allegations the campaign is having difficulty shaking. Moreover, Senator Barack Obama’s membership in the “United Church of Christ in Chicago,” is mentioned in the second paragraph, and the reporter then writes (in an unacceptably long sentence, that DID need editing): “Despite his denials, rumors and e-mails circulating on the Internet continue to allege that Obama (D-Ill.) is a Muslim, a"Muslim plant" in a conspiracy against America, and that, if elected president, he would take the oath of office using a Koran, rather than a Bible, as did Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the only Muslim in Congress, when he was sworn in earlier this year.”

The argument about the article intensified – and attracted the New York Times’ attention – when a 53-year-old Boston University journalism professor, Chris Daly, attacked the Washington Post’s editors for assigning an important “Page 1 presidential campaign piece” to a 27-year-old, Perry Bacon, Jr. The Times article appeared in the business section under the headline: “At Web Site for Journalists, Criticism of a Campaign Article Becomes a Melee.” The bulk of the article focused on the media big wigs who slugged it out over Daly’s personal attack on Bacon’s age.

In other words, the New York Times reported on the fallout of the article, rather than assessing the article itself or the rumors themselves. In fact, while the Times-on-line provided links to pages with the Washington Post Company’s stock information, and Senator Obama’s biographical sketch, it failed to provide links to the original Washington Post article or any of the blog posts criticizing the article. This abundance of irrelevant information gives a modern illusion of interactivity with very little enlightenment resulting.

Presidential campaigns are about controversies, rumors, perceptions. One crucial test of a campaign is its skill in deflecting the inevitable attacks on character that arise. In 1828, Andrew Jackson was convinced that allegations – which had some legitimacy -- that his wife Rachel had married him before divorcing her first husband led to her premature death. Jackson’s supporters countercharged with the false claims that John Quincy Adams pimped for the Czar. More recently, in 1992 Bill Clinton showed great virtuosity in treating fact-based allegations questioning his virtue as merely vicious rumors while George W. Bush spent a lot of time in 2000 artfully dodging questions about whether or not he used drugs before he found God.

I, too, have heard many people darkly whispering about Obama’s quite marginal Muslim past. Having read his autobiography I know that he went to a public school in Indonesia and has been an active member of his Christian church for years. I have corrected the rumor-mongers but have wondered what kind of impact these rumors are having on Obama’s candidacy. The Washington Post piece showed how widespread the phenomenon was, trusting readers to understand the meaning of such basic words as “rumors” and “denials.”

The Washington Post was justified in printing the story. And while the New York Times story was lots of fun to read for its gossip value, as a loyal Times reader who depends on the self-appointed “newspaper of record” to keep me and others informed, I wondered why it took two weeks for me to hear about this controversy, and why the Times has not explored the more serious question about what kind of an impact these false rumors against this good Christian have had. At the same time, I am also waiting for an article explaining why when Democrats profess their Christian faith, they are expressing their freedom of religion, and when Republicans profess their Christian faith, they are threatening our freedom to be as religious or secular as we wish…

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