In The Washington Post this morning, reporter Perry Bacon Jr. wrote what may be the single worst campaign ‘08 piece to appear in any American newspaper so far this election cycle.
In the front-page piece, Bacon muses over how the chances of Barack Obama getting elected president might be affected by the fact that he’s not Muslim. Seriously. 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. Bacon kicks the whole sorry mess off with the unsubstantiated statement that:
In his speeches and often on the Internet, the part of Sen. Barack Obama’s biography that gets the most attention is not his race but his connections to the Muslim world.
Who, exactly, gives this the most attention?
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. Specifically, the charge that Obama was educated at a Muslim madrassa while living in Indonesia as a boy. Bacon broaches the subject when referring to “an early rumor about Obama’s faith” that came from the far right-wing Insight.com Web site last year. (The rumor has since been thoroughly debunked.) We’ll let Bacon hang himself on this one:
The Insight article said Obama had “spent at least four years in a so-called madrassa, or Muslim seminary, in Indonesia.” It attributed this detail to background information the Clinton campaign had been collecting.
After Obama denied the rumor, Jeffrey Kuhner, Insight’s editor, said Obama’s “concealment and deception was to be the issue, not so much his Muslim heritage,” and he suggested that the source of the madrassa rumor was the Clinton campaign. The Clinton campaign denied the charge.
Human Events, another conservative magazine, published on its Web site a package of articles called “Barack Obama Exposed.” One of them was titled “The First Muslim President?”
Robert Spencer, a conservative activist, wrote in Human Events that “given Obama’s politics, it will not be hard to present him internationally as someone who understands Islam and Muslims, and thus will be able to smooth over the hostility between the Islamic world and the West — our first Muslim President.”
Conservative talk-show hosts have occasionally repeated the rumor, with Michael Savage noting Obama’s “background” in a “Muslim madrassa in Indonesia” in June, and Rush Limbaugh saying in September that he occasionally got “confused” between Obama and Osama bin Laden. Others repeatedly use the senator’s middle name, Hussein.
Problem is, none of this is true, though Bacon never gets around to telling us that. A quick Google search would have turned up a CNN story from January 2007—in which CNN sent a reporter to Indonesia to check out the school Obama attended—that completely debunks the madrassa rumor. 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. In addition to quoting Insight, which is owned by Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, and Michael Savage, who shouldn’t be taken seriously by anybody, Bacon wastes our time by quoting someone named Bryan Keelin of Charleston, South Carolina, who posted some nutty “Obama is a secret Muslim”-style screeds on various Web sites. Leaving no stone unturned, Bacon quotes Snopes.com, an Internet rumor site, for more on the Obama-as-Muslim story. 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.
Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.
This pathetic story has no place on the front page—or any page—of a paper like the Post. If a worse campaign-related story comes out this year, we don’t want to see it.