“I think it is a fine line when you are talking to someone who doesn’t have all the facts,” said Bash. “I think it’s really, really, important to make the case that it’s not my job, nor was I trying to convince her that Barack Obama is a Christian. What I was trying to do after she had gotten a lot of questions about how she got her information was to see how seared that information was into her head, and to see whether or not she was open to other ideas, and to the idea she might be wrong.”
Bash was adamant that any story she’d produce mentioning the falsehood would include a line explaining that Obama is not, in fact, a Muslim. I asked Bash if she thought there was more of a place for that in a story than in a real-time interview.
“I think it’s both,” she responded. “What do we do? We try to put out correct information as reporters. That’s our job. In part, saying, wait a minute, he’s a Christian, it was trying to inform her. She doesn’t have to wait for my piece on television. She doesn’t have to wait for my live shot. She can hear me there.”
Daniel Malloy is a young reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Earlier this month, he wrote a piece exploring voter opinion in a rural county in southern Pennsylvania. Before he began reporting, he considered how he’d handle it if anyone repeated the Muslim lie to him. He decided that spot corrections were necessary.
“We are journalists and our job is to inform the public,” he says. “When I write this story later, I’m going to say that he’s not a Muslim. So when this person reads this story, is it going to be weird for them to read it in the paper but not have heard it from me? That’s a little bit dishonest, almost. If it’s supposedly our job to educate and inform the public, we should be educating and informing the public verbally as well as in the written word.”
I’ve only had one experience reporting on the campaign where something like this came up. It was during April’s Pennsylvania primary, and I was at a rec-building polling station in a northeast Philadelphia park, interviewing people about where they’d found their information on the candidates.
Hector Rivera, a thirty-seven-year old bricklayer, had clearly spent a lot of time reading about the election, and was proud to tick off his news sources and what he’d learned. But I was a little taken aback when he vaguely mentioned Obama’s father and stepfather, just before claiming that when Obama “was sworn in to the Senate, he did it on the Koran, not the proper Bible.”
I asked Rivera where he had read that.
“Human Events,” he said. “Someone e-mailed it to me.”
And then I told him that that he had in fact been sworn in on a Bible, and that what he’d heard was just a rumor.
“It’s a rumor? Then that’s not right for people to say,” said Rivera.
That response was much more surprising to me than his original claim. How could someone who was so up on the election—seconds before, he had referenced Clinton’s dodgy landing-under-sniper-fire anecdote—have seen the Muslim rumor, but not seen information that would have set him straight? And why was he so willing to believe me once I told him he was wrong? And why would it have mattered to him if the Koran statement were true? I wish I’d thought to ask.
In any case, my experience seems to be an exception. The reporters I spoke to said that any real-time corrections to the Muslim rumors almost always have no impact. Interviewees say something to the effect that the rumor—even if they weren’t entirely sure of its veracity—was still enough to trouble them; or they make some factually true, if still Islamophobic, statement, like pointing out his Muslim ancestry.
It’s a depressing thought for a journalist: no matter when you point them out, sometimes the facts don’t matter.