Media Matters, Columbia Journalism Review Slam Washington Post

Yesterday, as we all know, the Washington Post saw fit to elevate a whisper campaign to the front page of the newspaper.  The Post quoted extensively from charges about Obama's background without bothering to call them false or to refute them.

CBS featured the Post article on its website with the headline "Obama Dogged by Muslim Rumors."  As Greg Sargent put it:

Look -- Obama is not"dogged by Muslim rumors." He is the victim of a smear campaign based on lies. These two things are not the same. And incidentally, to whatever extent Obama is "dogged" by these rumors, surely this will only be facilitated when news orgs like WaPo fail to make a serious effort to knock them down before printing them.

The Washington Post tried to defend itself yesterday.  The author, Perry Bacon, sent out this email:

I thought the facts that 1. these falsehoods persist and 2. Obama make mentions of his time living in a Muslim country on the campaign trail as part of his foreign policy were both worth remarking. I think the story makes clear, including in the candidate's own words, he is a Christian.

This is precisely the problem.  Nowhere in the Washington Post story, of course, are these stories called false. 

The Post quotes the "candidate's own words" and nothing but the candidate's own words.  It does absolutely no reporting as to whether one side or the other is speaking the truth, even implying through its quoting of multiple sources of the smear that the charge has some basis.  And the Post calls Obama's words "denials," as Steve Benen puts it, "as if the attacks might have some merit."

Second, Bacon essentially blames Obama for the smear campaign against him, citing Obama's mentions of his childhood in Indonesia, as if they provoked and justified the response.

The Columbia Journalism Review slammed the article last night, calling it "the single worst campaign ‘08 piece to appear in any American newspaper so far this election cycle." 

Although the claims mentioned in the Washington Post article have been thoroughly debunked in the press, Bacon cites none of this actual journalism, instead trying to make the case that these accusations are politically valid without pointing out that they're baseless.

To build his case, Bacon stumbles artlessly through all manner of rumor, innuendo, and xenophobic smear—never bothering to refute any of it, even though there is plenty of well-documented evidence to knock down much of this stuff. [...]

Further down in the piece, we’re given the evidence for Bacon’s assertion: selected quotes from a variety of right-wing nut jobs who traffic in sleazy online character assassination, and who don’t bother with reporting — intellectually honest or otherwise — when rumor and lies will suffice.

Here’s what really galls: while Bacon rightly refers the madrassa story a “rumor,” he quotes enough sources to make it sound like maybe it’s more than that, and he never bothers to state unequivocally that it’s been proven false. This habit of reporters—perpetuating untruths by writing stories about the “phenomenon” of those untruths—drives us nuts.

Was LexisNexis broken in the scant few minutes it must have taken him to write this story? If so, Bacon must have taken to Internet message boards to troll for xenophobic posts claiming that Obama is a Muslim. [...]

As Media Matters puts it:

But rather than citing the investigative reports by CNN, the Associated Press, and ABC News conclusively debunking the smear, or providing his own reporting on whether the school Obama attended was, in fact, a madrassa, Bacon reported only that "Obama denied the rumor."

CNN actually visited the school that Obama visited for two years of his stay in Indonesia (the ohter two years he spent at a Catholic school).  And then there was:

a March 25 Chicago Tribune reported that "[i]nterviews with dozens of former classmates, teachers, neighbors and friends show that Obama was not a regular practicing Muslim when he was in Indonesia."

That would actually be reporting.  Instead, Bacon cites none of these reports.  He lamely provides, as the Columbia Journalism Review notes, this:

Bacon then wraps up by tossing in a quote from an Obama adviser telling us that all’s fine, there’s nothing to worry about.

Oh, well, with that tidbit at the end Bacon achieved the all-important Balance, so all’s well in newspaper-land.

AJ Rossmiller of America Blog called it "the worst article of this campaign cycle."  Steve Benen of The Carpetbagger Report called it "the worst, most irresponsible piece of journalism I’ve seen from any respectable news outlet this year."  

As Benen points out, the article does indeed point out that Obama is a member of a Christian church in the second paragraph, but then it goes on:

The story proceeds to detail public attitudes about Muslims, quote Muslim leaders, share the concerns of anti-Muslim activists, compare Muslim’s public standing to Mormon’s, etc. It might be a perfectly reasonable piece if Obama weren’t an active, church-going Christian who has never been a Muslim.

This kind of article, Benen writes:

instead of setting the record straight for the public’s benefit, does the exact opposite— it suggests to voters that this is a legitimate area of inquiry. [...]

The article never gets around to telling the reader the truth, which, ostensibly, is what political journalism is supposed to be all about. 

Indeed, Insight's coverage of the madrassah story was slammed on the editorial page of a major American newspaper on January 24th:

Insight, whose piece was eagerly touted by Fox News Network, might have learned this if it had bothered to check its story rather than cravenly attributing the false report to "Hillary Clinton's camp," citing unnamed "sources close to the background check" that the New York senator supposedly conducted into Mr. Obama.

The editorial continues:

Mr. Obama's slimers seem to think such name-calling and Muslim-baiting can score points with the American people. On the contrary, Mr. Obama's multicultural background (his father was Kenyan, and he spent several years living in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather) ought to be viewed as a plus. A president with an understanding of Islam and the developing world would be welcomed by those who too often feel misunderstood and slighted by the United States.

Mr. Obama has never tried to hide his past or his family name: He has written about being educated at a predominantly Muslim school. His father, a non-practicing Muslim, was Barack Hussein Obama Sr. His grandmother is Sara Hussein Obama.

The senator, however, does not use his middle name. Those who take pains to insert it when referring to him are trying, none too subtly, to stir up scary images of menacing terrorists and evil dictators. They embarrass only themselves.

The major American newspaper in which this editorial appeared?  Well, The Washington Post, of course.  Maybe it should take its own advice.

The Washington Post even seems to be being mocked by its own cartoon page:


Every once in a while I'm asked, so what is Obama's response?  How does he plan to respond to these accusations?  To which my only answer is that he has rarely hit a more transcendent note than here in his 2004 DNC Convention speech:

My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or "blessed," believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren't rich, because in a generous America you don't have to be rich to achieve your potential. They are both passed away now. Yet, I know that, on this night, they look down on me with pride.

I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents' dreams live on in my precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible. 

Tags: Barack Obama, Columbia Journalism Review, journalism, Media Matters, Perry Bacon, President 2008, Washington Post (all tags)



Perry Bacon....

what a horrible journalist, and an even a worse black man.

by General Sherman 2007-11-30 08:38AM | 0 recs
Wait a minute.

His "race" has nothing to do with it.

He is not a "horrible black man" because of this.  You assume that his skin color requires fairness or to support Obama.  

He may just be a lousy journalist.  There are bad black and bad white journalists.

by TomP 2007-11-30 02:13PM | 0 recs
Re: Media Matters, Columbia Journalism Review Slam

The Tom Toles cartoon is one for the ages.  My wife doesn't even know what this controversy is about and she thought it was hilarious.

My advice to Obama is that he should subtly start snacking on pork rinds while on camera.

by Steve M 2007-11-30 08:42AM | 0 recs


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