It’s a pretty dubious distinction to be credited with publishing “the first anonymous smear of the 2008 presidential race,” by the New York Times. But that’s the honor that Insightmag.com’s Jeffrey T. Kuhner has been awarded for publishing a story on January 17 claiming that Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama had attended a radical Islamic madrassa as a child living in Indonesia.
Soon after the Web site (Insight is owned by the Unification Church, which is led by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who also owns the Washington Times) printed its accusation, Fox News’ John Gibson, as well as a slew of right-wing radio talk shows, went big with the story, reportedly leaked by “researchers connected to Senator Clinton.”
Well, it turns out that the original report was false — CNN shot it down by employing the increasingly novel strategy of actually sending a reporter to the school to check it out — and as mentioned above, the Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick ran a postmortem on the kerfuffle in this morning’s paper.
To be honest, we’ve only been half-paying attention to this story over the past week and a half, but Kirkpatrick’s piece raises some interesting questions.
Kirkpatrick writes that “The Clinton-Obama article followed a series of inaccurate or hard-to-verify articles on Insight and its predecessor magazine about politics, the Iraq war or the Bush administration, including a widely discussed report on the Insight Web site that President Bush’s relationship with his father was so strained that they were no longer speaking to each other about politics,” as well as false reports that “President Bill Clinton was selling plots at Arlington National Cemetery to Democratic campaign donors, and, during the Bush administration, that Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction might have been found.”
So the main question is, after all this, why should we take seriously anything that this online rag has to say? Every news organization gets things wrong, but Insight seems to have developed a business model out of concocting fables. Then there’s the issue of the site’s policy of refusing to byline stories. Kirkpatrick writes that, “To most journalists, the notion of anonymous reporters relying on anonymous sources is a red flag.” That’s true, although Kirkpatrick doesn’t kick hard enough in this instance. The fact that Insight uses anonymous reporters wouldn’t be such a problem if the publication had a credible track record. The Economist, which also shuns bylines, manages to avoid these kinds of problems, after all. Insight’s track record, as noted earlier, is a joke.
Despite this, we’re still talking about the story, because as David Brock so ably showed during his time at Insight in the 1990s, it doesn’t take a respected news organization to run a big-time smear campaign — all it takes is for the rest of the media to repeat the story, while neglecting to follow it up with their own reporting.
As the Los Angeles Times’ Tim Rutten wrote over the weekend, “The news media, after all, are like every American institution, home to its share of idiots, poseurs, slothful time-markers and self-interested time servers.”