Last Sunday, The New York Times fronted a 2,150-word article about Barack Obama’s association with Bill Ayers, co-founder of the Weather Underground. This wasn’t the first time we’d heard about the Obama-Ayers association, of course, and the Times piece had an airing-out quality to its reporting and a setting-the-record-straight quality to its tone. It also gave John McCain’s increasingly frenetic campaign an excuse to spotlight supposed deficiencies in Obama’s political judgment and moral sensibility.
And possibly in other aspects of Obama’s person, as well. This week, Sarah Palin, resurrecting her Barracuda persona, has begun saying: “Our opponent … is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” Obama, she’ll continue, “is not a man who sees America like you and I see America.”
In reaction to which the crowd, inevitably, will boo. Sometimes worse.
The recent resurgence of Ayers presents a challenge, to say the least, for campaign reporters. Given that his story is an old one—and given that its tenuous relevance to Obama’s presidential campaign is predicated on a relationship to Obama that is itself tenuous (significantly more tenuous than, say, John McCain’s connection to Charles Keating)—how should his story be covered? Should it be covered at all?
The press could, you could say, dismiss the Ayers story as a lipstick-on-a-pig-style distraction that is worth neither the time of the press nor the attention of the American public. But that would ignore the fact that there is some substance in the Ayers connection. Obama and Ayers sat on the board of the Annenberg Challenge, an education-improvement project, together in 1995; that same year; Ayers and his wife hosted a coffee for Chicago Democrats, at which then-State Senator Alice Palmer introduced Obama to guests as her chosen successor; between 2000 and 2002, Obama and Ayers sat on the board of the Woods Fund, an anti-poverty organization; in 2001, Ayers dontributed $200 to Obama’s State Senate re-election fund. Just as Obama’s connection to Reverend Wright deserved coverage—not the obsessive, racism-tinged coverage it got, to be sure, but coverage of some sort—so does his association with Ayers. The old you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep is true, in politics as in everything else, and political associates are fair game for the press to cover.
The question, in this case, is how to do so. There’s a fine line, after all, between providing voters with vital information about a candidate and amplifying a story beyond what it deserves (see “Wright, Jeremiah”). Just as there’s a fine line between clarifying a connection between a politician and an unsavory associate and implying guilt by association (see “Wright, Jeremiah”). Just as there’s a fine line between reporting about a campaign’s strategy and turning that strategy into a self-fulfilling prophecy (see “Wright, Jeremiah”). And those lines are rendered even finer by the fact that, once again, the relationship between Obama and Ayers is dubious.
All of which compels us to ask: To what extent should journalists be stenographers when it comes to Ayers, repeating the McCain campaign’s accusations and implications; and to what extent should they be analyzing the Ayers angle and framing it as a campaign tactic? Is the Ayers story about information, in other words, or strategy?
Most news outlets seem to have decided that it’s the latter. Take Wednesday’s New York Times editorial, which started off analyzing the second presidential debate, but quickly continued into Ayers territory:
Ninety minutes of forced cordiality did not erase the dismal ugliness of his campaign in recent weeks, nor did it leave us with much hope that he would not just return to the same dismal ugliness on Wednesday.
Ms. Palin, in particular, revels in the attack. Her campaign rallies have become spectacles of anger and insult. “This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America,” Ms. Palin has taken to saying.
That line follows passages in Ms. Palin’s new stump speech in which she twists Mr. Obama’s ill-advised but fleeting and long-past association with William Ayers, founder of the Weather Underground and confessed bomber. By the time she’s done, she implies that Mr. Obama is right now a close friend of Mr. Ayers — and sympathetic to the violent overthrow of the government. The Democrat, she says, “sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.”
Her demagoguery has elicited some frightening, intolerable responses. A recent Washington Post report said at a rally in Florida this week a man yelled “kill him!” as Ms. Palin delivered that line and others shouted epithets at an African-American member of a TV crew.
Mr. McCain’s aides haven’t even tried to hide their cynical tactics, saying they were “going negative” in hopes of shifting attention away from the financial crisis — and by implication Mr. McCain’s stumbling response.
And on its news pages, following its information-heavy, catalystic cover story, the Times has focused on the Ayers-resurrection-as-strategy angle of the story. Taking a similar but even more dramatic approach, the AP—its rather fascinating Fournierian model of accountability journalism out in full force—came out and called the McCain campaign’s claim of Obama’s “palling around with terrorists” both “unsubstantiated” and “racially tinged.”
The news organizations’ strategy-uber-alles approach to reporting on Ayers is extreme, however. Since, overall, here’s what we know about the saga that is Obama & Ayers: The Sequel so far:
1. The resurgence of Ayers seems to be a pretty clear case of Team McCain plumbing the proverbial Clintonian Kitchen Sink in the hopes of stoking racial tensions—or at least of making voters doubt Obama’s patriotism and fitness to lead.
2. The conjecture above is simply that: conjecture. Barring a striking admission from a high-level member of the McCain campaign, it’s unprovable.
Taken together, the two suggest a dereliction of duty on the part of a press corps that has devoted so much ink to the Ayers story over the last week. Campaign reporting is a zero-sum game; every reporter following the Ayers story is a reporter who isn’t following stories about the candidates’ economic policies and the like. If reporters are going to cover the Ayers story—and it does deserve some coverage—then they need to do so smartly, sharply, in a way that doesn’t allow a single side’s myopic talking points to hijack the campaign narrative. In a way, in other words, that has as its primary concern the needs of the voters.
One simple way to serve those needs better: clarify who Ayers is and what he did to deserve being called a “domestic terrorist” (or, abbreviated, “terrorist”). The Ayers-as-terrorist framework has made its way into coverage of the campaigns, in narratives and in quotes from Palin (and, now, McCain). For me, though, and probably for most Americans, the term “domestic terrorist” conjures images of Timothy McVeigh; “terrorist” on its own evokes, of course, Osama bin Laden. Neither of these figures is an accurate analog for Ayers. Absent any other context or explanation about Ayers’s brand of “terrorism,” though, September 11 and Oklahoma City are the connections left in voters’ minds. Not only is that misleading, but it’s unfair, as well. To all involved.
The lede of the Times piece, headlined “Obama and ’60s Bomber—A Look Into Crossed Paths,” describes the Weathermen as “launching a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and the United States Capitol.” The tenth graf of the story mentions that “federal riot and bombing conspiracy charges against him were dropped in 1974 because of illegal wiretaps and other prosecutorial misconduct,” without clarifying that Ayers hadn’t been charged for murder. And it’s not until thirty-four grafs into the forty-graf-long article that the Times gets around to mentioning the fact that “most of the bombs the Weathermen were blamed for had been placed to do only property damage”—a fact that changes the picture of a McVeigh- and bin Laden-like Ayers significantly.
None of which is to exculpate Ayers, or Obama for his relationship to him. It is to say, though, that the best way for the press to serve the voters in discussing the Ayers story—as it is in discussing every story—is to provide them with information rather than speculation. And to balance the information they share with a healthy dose of skepticism as to the Ayers story’s ultimate relevance, tempering stenography with accountability. If the media don’t start striking such balances when it comes to the Ayers story, they run the risk of writing themselves into irrelevance. And of letting the proverbial kitchen table edge a little too close for comfort to the McCain campaign’s kitchen sink.Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.