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?