“The first anonymous smear of the 2008 presidential race illustrated how easily dubious information can spread” writes New York Times journalist David D. Kirkpatrick in his article Feeding Frenzy for a Big Story, Even if It’s False in which he follows the progress of an anonymously-sourced and anonymously written political story that major news outlets deemed worthy of 11 days of serious coverage.
The original story was posted at InsightMag.com on January 17th 2007 with this lede: .
"Are the American people ready for an elected president who was educated in a Madrassa as a young boy and has not been forthcoming about his Muslim heritage?
This is the question Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s camp is asking about Sen. Barack Obama. "
But as Kirkpatrick notes not even the gossipy and often standards-free Drudge Report that frequently links to Insight paid any attention to the story.
“So, as usual, (empahasis added) [Kuhner] e-mailed the article to producers at Fox News and MSNBC” whereupon it then got the exposure Kuhner seemed to think it needed on TV, in the print press and on radio
CNN and ABC, already publicizing the story. felt obliged to confirm it given its obvious lack of provenance. On the 22nd of January John Vause of CNN reported from the “maddrassa” that it was in fact and always had been a secular school.
ABC reporters checked with Obama’s political strategist David Axelrod who instead of exploiting the article’s claim by simply saying that it ‘might be possible’ instead said he "did not believe ... for a second" the story's claim against the Clinton camp.
With the “maddrassa” assertion proven false and the Clinton ‘attack by proxy’ unfounded the only source left was Insight’s editor Jeffrey T. Kuhner. But he refused to even name the author and offered nothing to substantiate the story other than to say:
“CNN's claim that Obama attended a multi-confessional, secular public school needs verification by other news outlets -- such as FOX News -- who will look the facts straight on, without a vested ideological interest in downplaying Obama's Muslim heritage.”
At this point much of the media began to distance themselves from the story and thus also neatly ignored their own roles in peddling it. David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times however went searching for the story behind the story—and then studiously ignored his own research.
“In an interview Sunday, Mr. Kuhner, 37, said he still considered the article, which he said was meant to focus on the thinking of the Clinton campaign (emphasis added), to be “solid as solid can be.” But he declined to say whether he had learned the identity of his reporter’s sources, and so perhaps only that reporter knows the origin of the article’s anonymous quotes and assertions” writes Kirkpatrick.
So the story wasn’t investigative journalism; it was an unsubstantiated opinion piece with a political purpose. So what does Kirkpatrick conclude?
“And at the start of a campaign with perhaps a dozen candidates hiring “research directors” to examine one another, the Insight episode may be a sign of what is to come.”
Oddly enough FOX hack John Gibson arrived at a similar though more specific and partisan conclusion on January 22nd –a week before Kirkpatrick’s article:
"Saying Obama attended a madrassa is tying Obama's name to terrorism. And that, my friends, is real political hardball in action…Are Hillary's fingerprints on the story? Doesn't seem so because they can deny these stories with a straight face…My point is simply this: The senator from Illinois is going to get a baptism by fire if he thinks he's going to challenge Hillary Clinton for the nomination."
Gibson properly identifies one function of the fake report (to smear Obama) and perpetuates the second function (to smear Clinton) by strongly implying that Clinton will probably engage in such tactics (the tertiary smear of Democrats overall is thus a 'given') .
Gibson actually gives the game away, and what is Kirkpatrick’s revelation?
Not that a right-wing hack of record pushed a propaganda piece onto biased media outlets that ignored professional standards and willingly turned it into national “news”, but that campaign staff in general may increasingly use websites as a back-channel for political dirty tricks!
The facts are that Kuhner could count on FOX to give the story legs and could count on its rival MSNBC to put competition before professionalism. Others followed suit, giving the lies relevance through mere repetition.
And yet even Kirkpatrick (who bothered to apply some professional diligence) misses the real story—which is that right-wing operatives (not left-wing) employed these “dirty tricks” and will continue to do so because they will invariably be abetted by the pseudo-journalists and ignorant pundits that infect today’s MSM--and neither will be held to account.
Of course there will be more to come but it will likely be mostly from the Republicans and the right-wing who have the greatest motivation and the greatest means, thanks to the MSM (this event is just the latest in a long line) that will be sure promote each and every smear the right generates
To quote Mr Kirkpatrick, “as usual”.