Tuesday, January 30, 2007

On political smears and coming to Jesus

About a week ago a good friend (who like me, is an unrepentant political liberal) forwarded me an email sent to her by another mutual friend, a woman of a very conservative bent. The email was about Senator Barack Obama, and shared the "fact" that Obama had been educated as a Muslim as a child. The strong suggestion was that he became a Christian (perhaps, "affiliated himself with Christianity" captures the flavor of the allegation more accurately) much later, after having been bitten by the political bug. The friend who forwarded it did so with the equivalent of an eye roll (yes, you can do that by email), along with the suggestion that perhaps an intervention might be in order for our mutual friend.

Imagine my surprise when this Sunday's New York Times carried this story on it's front page:

Feeding Frenzy for a Big Story, Even if It’s False

Published: January 29, 2007

WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 — Jeffrey T. Kuhner, whose Web site published the first anonymous smear of the 2008 presidential race, is hardly the only editor who will not reveal his reporters’ sources. What sets him apart is that he will not even disclose the names of his reporters.

But their anonymity has not stopped them from making an impact. In the last two weeks, Mr. Kuhner’s Web site, Insight, the last remnant of a defunct conservative print magazine owned by the Unification Church led by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, was able to set off a wave of television commentary, talk-radio chatter, official denials, investigations by journalists around the globe and news media self-analysis that has lasted 11 days and counting.

The controversy started with a quickly discredited Jan. 17 article on the Insight Web site asserting that the presidential campaign of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was preparing an accusation that her rival, Senator Barack Obama, had covered up a brief period he had spent in an Islamic religious school in Indonesia when he was 6.

(Other news organizations have confirmed Mr. Obama’s descriptions of the school as a secular public school. Both senators have denounced the report, and there is no evidence that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign planned to spread those accusations.)

In an interview Sunday, Mr. Kuhner, 37, said he still considered the article, which he said was meant to focus on the thinking of the Clinton campaign, to be “solid as solid can be.” But he declined to say whether he had learned the identity of his reporter’s sources, and so perhaps only that reporter knows the origin of the article’s anonymous quotes and assertions. Its assertions about Mr. Obama resemble rumors passed on without evidence in e-mail messages that have been widely circulated over the last several weeks.

The Clinton-Obama article followed a series of inaccurate or hard-to-verify articles on Insight and its predecessor magazine about politics, the Iraq war or the Bush administration, including a widely discussed report on the Insight Web site that President Bush’s relationship with his father was so strained that they were no longer speaking to each other about politics.

The Washington Times, which is also owned by the Unification Church, but operates separately from the Web site, quickly disavowed the article. Its national editor sent an e-mail message to staff members under the heading “Insight Strikes Again” telling them to “make sure that no mention of any Insight story” appeared in the paper, and another e-mail message to its Congressional correspondent instructing him to clarify to Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama that The Washington Times had nothing to do with the article on the Web site... (you can read more here.)

So, so many interesting angles to the story...

The Hillary Clinton angle (full disclosure: she's my senator, I voted for her twice, I will seriously consider supporting her in her run for president).

The fear of Muslims angle.

The "wishy-washy-no-moral-center-Democrats" angle.

The dirty tricks angle (this administration resembles the Nixon administration more by the minute, I swear).

The Unification Church (!) angle.

And let's not forget the race angle (the real potential Obama has for being our first African American president, the mere thought of which makes this liberal's heart swell with ecstacy).

What perplexed me about the original email was its tone of moral indignation. Isn't the Christian right supposedly all het up to get people to come to Jesus? Shouldn't they therefore be dancing in the streets at one more soul saved, if indeed the early Islamic education angle is true? Which, apparently, it's not.

What disturbed me was the fact of its having been forwarded by someone who, despite our being on opposite ends of the political spectrum, seems generally reasonable. That she would forward such a piece of claptrap was truly worrisome to me. It spoke volumes to me of the knee-jerk willingness on the part of conservatives to believe and assume the worst about Democrats (I don't know that we can call Obama a liberal. I also don't know that I can call someone being educated in one faith and embracing another the "worst.")

It's going to be a long 643 days 12 hours and 43 minutes.

Photo courtesy of stijn v. and Flickr.


Liz said...

It is sickening that the ugly rumor and gossip mill has already started. Wouldn't the fact that the source was anonymous tip most people off? Let's hope so!

steve said...

It's frightening to me how easily we will believe the bad about those with whom we disagree. When I see it happen to those who happen to think the way I do, it makes me concerned about whether I might unintentionally also do so for those who whose perspectives I disagree with.