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Campaigns Deny Claims of Internet Story

January 29, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: On Jan. 17, an article appeared on the Web site of Insight magazine, which began, “Are the American people ready for an elected president who was educated in a madrassa as a young boy and has not been forthcoming about his Muslim heritage? This is the question Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s camp is asking about Sen. Barack Obama.”

That “story” became quite a story itself: discussed as though fact, debunked as fiction, a case study in how information — anonymous and apparently incorrect information in this case — can spread quickly and cause a political stir.

David Kirkpatrick unraveled the tale in today’s New York Times and joins us now. Also with us is Ellen Hume, director of the Center on Media and Society at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She’s a former White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and political writer for the Los Angeles Times.

And welcome to both of you.

David, the article appears on a Web site. Tell us what happens. Give us a quick run-through.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK, New York Times: Well, the article appeared on the Web site of Insight magazine. Its editor was disappointed that Matt Drudge did not pick it up, as he often does Insight’s more sensational scoops…

JEFFREY BROWN: At his online site.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Yes, right, with his Web site, which has a broader readership, so he e-mailed the story to producers at FOX News and MSNBC.

And in the FOX morning show, I think starting around 6:00 a.m., they picked it up and ran with it. They even added a little bit of extra detail. They elaborated on what a madrassa was. A madrassa is an Islamic school, full-stop, and they described it as a kind of school for teaching terrorism, basically, a place where hatred of the U.S. is inculcated.

And they bantered about that for a while. And then, later that afternoon, another FOX host picked it up and talked about how mischievous it was of Sen. Hillary Clinton to have promulgated this rumor, because the initial Insight story was not just that Sen. Barack Obama had attended an Islamic school. It was that Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was planning to go forward with insinuations that Obama had attended this school and then had lied about it.

How the rumors spread

JEFFREY BROWN: So it starts there. It gets out on into television on FOX. It starts more talk on radio?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: That's right. After it was on FOX, the story was sort of perfect for conservative talk radio, having the Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and madrassa elements. So then they were bandying about it all over the place.

CNN then followed up. They sent a news crew to Jakarta, in Indonesia, where Sen. Obama grew up, to check out the school. They found the report was false. And at that point, the story really took off.

Ironically, once CNN had debunked it, then the CNN versus FOX News tit-for-tat became news for our paper and others, and set off a whole second round of media reporting about the media, all of which repeated the initial story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now the author of the article is anonymous, as well as the sources, correct?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do the editors at Insight say about their story?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: The editors at Insight stand by the elements of their story involving Hillary Clinton's campaign. They say their story was really about what the Clinton campaign was trying to do, what its opposition research was working on about Sen. Barack Obama.

The story didn't exactly read that way. The story seemed to believe, not only that Hillary Clinton was planning this, but that Sen. Obama had been misleading about his Islamic -- his alleged Islamic education.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, alleged, we should say, because he is Christian.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: And we should also note that, even were it true that at the age of six, for two or perhaps four years, he had attended an Islamic school, that wouldn't necessarily be something to be embarrassed about. I mean, it's just a school for a 6-year-old.

But in any event, right, so they stand by the parts of their story that describe what they say to be the intention of the Clinton campaign. And that's one thing that has made this bit of insinuation so resistant to being stamped out.

It's very hard to prove a negative. It's very hard to prove that no one in the Clinton campaign had considered this story.

Deciding what to report

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Ellen Hume, the rumor mill in politics is certainly nothing new. What's new here, the speed, the willingness to run with a story like this? How do you see it?

ELLEN HUME, Center on Media and Society, University of Massachusetts: Well, of course, it was a perfect political hit. They tried to kill off two Democratic campaigns at the same time.

But I think what is new here is that, first of all, you have the speed of the Internet, you have a candidate, Barack Obama, about whom not very much is known. Everyone agrees that he's gotten some sort of charisma and rock star status.

But what is his real biography? What is his real history? Because you have a candidate who hasn't been a front-runner for very long, who's sort of a newcomer to the scene, that gives an opportunity for others to paint a picture of him before he's been able to describe himself to the public. So I think that that's what's new.

Also just, of course, the speed of the Internet, the fact that you can put up your own videos, and everyone is a journalist today, makes this story almost impossible to stamp out, even if it's completely false.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, here you also had other news organizations, in this case CNN and then I think ABC, check the story. So it got out there quickly but it also got checked quickly, Ellen.

ELLEN HUME: Well, I think that's the whole point of journalism. If you're going to have journalists, they're supposed to be verifiers of fact. That's their first and most important job, not to be conveyers of rumor or people who say what's hip and what's current.

It's, what's true and what's false? That's what journalism is supposed to be doing. And I'm glad some journalists are out there trying to figure that out.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's the good side of the story, Ellen. What worries you about this case?

ELLEN HUME: Well, for many years now, journalists have been under siege. They've been called biased. They've been called too narrow. Mainstream media, as we all know, are losing a lot of their audience, both in newspapers and in television, because there was a sense back in the old days that, frankly, journalists weren't reporting enough to the public.

They were protecting officials, for example, Jack Kennedy. They didn't report enough about his personal life and some of the activities with women in the White House, perhaps. And so there was a sense that we needed to open up journalism more to some other topics that were not talked about.

That, however, has swung to the opposite extreme, where we now have things that may be made up by whole cloth that are about very intimate sexual behavior or about schooling when you're 6 years old, or, in the case of Michael Dukakis for example, when he was running for president, something about whether he had psychiatric help or not.

And, in fact, he could have -- it would have been fine -- but he didn't. And in this case, it was a rumor by the Lyndon LaRouche operation, and it was picked up by the mainstream media in a very partisan way.

So I think all of this paints journalists with a brush that is, unfortunately, not bringing audience to real news. It's murking up the media landscape in a way that journalists have a very hard time recovering from.

Checking the facts

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, David, you're covering the campaign. Now if it is the case that this kind of information in every major candidate has their own research operations, looking for information about their opponent, if it is the case that all that could get out that much easier nowadays and faster, how does a political reporter deal with it?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, at the major news organizations, we still try to do things the way we've always done it. You know, you check out the facts. Just because something is on a Web site doesn't mean that it's true.

In this case, we didn't see anybody -- aside from FOX News, you didn't see any of the major news organizations picking this up. And in FOX's defense, it was mostly their commentators who picked it up. It wasn't their news reporters who picked it up. And they've apologized; they've said they made a mistake.

So part of what is -- so, for us, the game is to be just as dubious about information that's floating around in the world of talk radio or the Internet as we would if some joker called our newsroom with a crazy-sounding tip.

But part of what is tricky about this is you get a kind of epistemological double standard, where there's a whole world of folklore almost, of bogus reports that circulate around the Internet, on Web sites, on talk radio, that never make it into the big news organizations, the big newspapers, or onto ABC, NBC, CBS.

And those things can -- they can attract an audience. I mean, the Clinton administration was kind of a case study in that.

The consumer's role

JEFFREY BROWN: Ellen, so, in the meantime, what is a consumer of news to do? You're there as a teacher of young journalists. What are they to do? And what are consumers to do?

ELLEN HUME: The consumer of news, the citizen, the person out there who's listening to this, the burden is now on that person, I'm afraid, to distinguish between what's talk show chatter and what's verified journalism.

And there's a tip that I give my students that I would like to pass onto everyone. It's pretty obvious. But if you want to determine whether something is worth your time, worth your belief, then figure out where they got it from. Transparency is deeply important here.

So, in other words, was it from an authoritative source? What evidence do they have that it's true? And I love these talk show hosts who say, "Well, I know it's true, because we had a person inside." OK. Name that person inside. Name the date, the time that this fact occurred.

So I think that that's really what the public has to turn to. They have to really have a higher standard. Even, frankly, sometimes with the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or the L.A. Times or even the NewsHour, you often need two sources.

But at least the mainstream media that I've just cited are attempting to differentiate between opinion and fact and to tell you transparently where they're getting their facts from.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, some advice as we go forward in the campaign. Ellen Hume and David Kirkpatrick, thanks very much.

ELLEN HUME: Thank you.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Glad to be here.