Obama’s Rumor Patrol

Why isn’t the press doing this job?

Barack Obama—Barack Hussein Obama—is Muslim! Barack Hussein Obama was born in Kenya, not the U.S.—so, per the Constitution, he is ineligible to become president! Barack Hussein Obama won’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance! Barack Hussein Obama’s wife has referred to white people as “Whitey”! Barack Hussein Obama hates beer! Barack Hussein Obama hates America! Barack Hussein Obama, beneath those slick, elitist dress shoes, has cloven hooves!

Et cetera. They’re ridiculous, these rumors (all but the last have actually been circulating about him), especially when seen in the aggregate—a compendium of assorted absurdities, all spinning on the tilted axis of xenophobic exploitation. A bit like a virus, the rumors’ precise origins are generally unknown; a bit like a virus, they latch on to our political discourse, sometimes permanently; a bit like a virus, they often alter the very DNA of that discourse; a bit like a virus, once they’ve latched on, they tend to proliferate exponentially. You get the idea.

Yesterday, the Obama campaign unveiled its own attempt at an anti-viral: FighttheSmears.com, a new section of its Web site that takes on each rumor that’s been circulating through the Net, email, cable news, and even some mainstream print outlets. Specifically, by inviting Obamians the world over—Obama’s much-heralded Netroot network—to stanch the viruses’ spread by spreading corrections. Virus-fighting goes…viral!

The site’s merit is debatable, to be sure. As TNR’s Michelle Cottle noted:

It’s a risky proposition, creating a laundry list of lies and exaggerations that many voters may not have yet heard. But I think it’s a shrewd one. The crazies, nasties (think Roger Stone) and conspiracy theorists will only get crazier, nastier and more conspiracy-minded as this race goes on, and Obama can’t risk ignoring their blatherings—no matter how unbalanced the charges seem or how many times the campaign has pointedly refuted them.

The “Whitey” lies about Michelle Obama seem to have been the final straw. This is the first rumor listed on the site:

LIE: Rush Limbaugh says a tape exists of Michelle Obama using the word “whitey” from the pulpit of Trinity United

LIE: Blogger Larry Johnson writes “New and dramatic developments. This is a heads up. I’ll post the news Monday morning by 0900 hours.”

LIE: Proven GOP sleazemeister Roger Stone says he has “credible evidence that some indelible record exists” of a tape of Michelle Obama using the term “whitey.”

LIE: Blogger: “Tape was filmed between June 26th - July 1st 2004 in Chicago, IL at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition Conference at Trinity United Church: specifically the Women’s Event.”

TRUTH: No such tape exists.

There’s a certain brand of kitschy irony to this whole effort—the eagle, its belly branded with an Obama logo, that presides over the top (in every sense) of the site; the notation that the site is “POWERED by TRUTH—AND SUPPORTERS LIKE YOU”; the fact that the word “Truth,” in the site’s iconography, often appears lit from above, as if God (not Allah, mind you) were shining light on the very notion of Obamian Truth itself. The whole thing has a vaguely Us Weekly-esque “As Reported in the Tabloids: TRUE or FALSE?” quality that, for better or worse, compromises the gravity of the entire project. As Gawker puts it, “Every campaign site needs a little mini-Snopes like this. ‘The Smear: John McCain is older than the sandwich. The Truth: He is only older than the PBJ.’”

The gambit is, if not brilliant strategy on the part of the Obama campaign, then necessary. Here’s Cottle again:

Obama’s success will hinge in large part on his ability to soothe the gut-level, often subconscious fears of people who are skittish about him because they’re not quite sure if he’s “one of us.” To do this, he will have to be more aggressive than your average white-bread candidate with a boring white-bread name like John McCain. Better still, enlisting Obama’s online groundtroops in the effort seems in keeping with the grassroots, participatory nature of his campaign.

And here’s Marc Ambinder:

The site represents a shift in tactics for Chicago. In the past, the campaign refused to talk about the “smears” because they didn’t want to give them credibility. Now they’ve surrendered to the reality that silence often perpetuates the rumors. By consigning the smears to a website, the Obama campaign gives itself a nifty way to respond to these things. When asked, Obama can simply say, “Check the website” and move on.

They’re likely right—Obama’s “above it all” posture can only take him so far; as we saw with the Reverend Wright saga, some gossip needs to be addressed head-on, and explicitly. And there’s a certain rhetorical power in listing the rumors about the Obamas together, in one space; exposing them in the light of day—or, at least, the glow of the computer screen—robs them of their xenophobic potency, highlighting each factual/logical/commonsensical flaw. But one thing that hasn’t received as much attention: the campaign’s creation of “Stop the Smear” is also a fairly sharp insult to the political press. Shouldn’t we in the media be the ones disinfecting the rumors with sunlight? Shouldn’t we be the ones supplying the oxygen and openness?

Rumor, to be sure, is a tricky thing to report on—as we noted last week, the line that divides “informing” from “spreading” when it comes to unsubstantiated gossip is fine and sometimes malleable. We don’t want to make the press complicit in the spreading of unsubstantiated gossip, but rumors are part of the campaign, and deserve commentary—and, when untrue and absurd, to be called out as such. The best anti-viral, as always, is a press corps willing to step in and mediate the spin and, sometimes, the outright lies swirling around the campaigns. Stopping the smears is a reasonable undertaking for a campaign—but it’s the duty of the press.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.