Campaign Allegation A Source of Vexation

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 22, 2007

Days after Barack Obama jumped into the presidential sweepstakes, he was hit with a thinly sourced story from his past--39 years in his past, to be exact.

The allegation, by a conservative magazine, raised questions about whether the Illinois senator had been schooled in Islamic radicalism when he was all of 6 years old.

Insight, a magazine owned by the Washington Times, cited unnamed sources in saying that young Barack attended a madrassah, or Muslim religious school, in Indonesia. In his 1995 autobiography, Obama said his Indonesian stepfather had sent him to a "predominantly Muslim school" in Jakarta, after two years in a Catholic school -- but Insight goes further in saying it was a madrassah and that Obama was raised as a Muslim.

Fox News picked up the Insight charge on two of its programs, playing up an angle involving Hillary Clinton. The magazine, citing only unnamed sources, said that researchers "connected" to the New York senator were allegedly spreading the information about her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The New York Post, which, like Fox, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, also picked up the article, with the headline: " 'OSAMA' MUD FLIES AT OBAMA."

Thus, in the first media controversy of the 2008 campaign, two of the leading candidates find themselves forced to respond to allegations lacking a single named source.

"The allegations are completely false," says Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs. "To publish this sort of trash without any documentation is surprising, but for Fox to repeat something so false, not once, but many times is appallingly irresponsible. This is exactly the type of slash-and-burn politics the American people are sick and tired of." Obama, aides note, is a Christian and belongs to a Chicago church.

Clinton campaign officials were relieved that what they regard as an absurd allegation was not picked up more widely. "It's an obvious right-wing hit job by a Moonie publication that was designed to attack Senator Clinton and Senator Obama at the same time," says Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson. Insight, like the Washington Times, is owned by a company controlled by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. No one answered the phone at Insight's office yesterday and its editor did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.

On the morning show "Fox & Friends" on Friday, co-host Steve Doocy said that madrassahs are financed by Saudis and teach a radical version of Islam known as Wahhabism, though he said there was a question whether that was the curriculum in the late 1960s, when Obama attended the school. Another co-host, Gretchen Carlson, said that those on the show weren't referring to all Muslims, only "the kind that want to blow us up."

After the show, Obama aides complained to Fox about what the campaign deemed inflammatory language.

Bill Shine, Fox News's senior vice president for programming, says the "Fox & Friends" hosts "did say repeatedly, over and over, that they were getting this from Insight magazine." He says the show will provide a "clarification" today by including the comments of Obama campaign spokesmen. He says the morning program is "an irreverent show" on which the hosts sometimes express their opinions.

On Friday afternoon, John Gibson, host of Fox's "The Big Story," began a segment this way: "Hillary Clinton reported to be already digging up the dirt on Barack Obama. The New York senator has reportedly outed Obama's madrassah past. That's right, the Clinton team reported to have pulled out all the stops to reveal something Obama would rather you didn't know -- that he was educated in a Muslim madrassah."


Gibson's guest, Republican strategist Terry Holt, a former Bush campaign spokesman, said that the effort could be "a despicable act by an absolutely ruthless Clinton political machine. We know that they are capable of doing this." But if the information wasn't linked to Clinton, Holt said, she should "disavow" it. There was no Democratic strategist on the segment, but Gibson did read an Obama campaign statement dismissing the article as false.

Gibson portrayed the controversy as an example of hardball politics: "Picture the commercial, 'Hi, I'm Barack Obama. Funny thing happened to me on my way to the White House, somebody discovered I didn't go to a kindergarten, I went to a madrassah.' This is how the big kids play politics."

Asked if Fox News was promoting unproven rumors about Obama and Clinton, as some liberal blogs have charged, Shine says: "Some on the left might think that. I don't think anybody should read anything into that."

There was a time when major media outlets refused to touch unsubstantiated allegations. When Gennifer Flowers sold her account of an affair with Hillary Clinton's husband to the Star tabloid in 1992 -- allegations that turned out to be true, at least in part -- some news organizations went with it and others shied away for days. These days, the time elapsed between a flimsy charge from some magazine or Web site and amplification by bigger media outlets is often close to zero.

Clinton, meanwhile, faces a longer-range problem with the media. Unlike Obama, whose out-of-nowhere candidacy has been celebrated by reporters and columnists alike, the former first lady has drawn skeptical coverage from the mainstream press, stemming from the battles of her husband's administration.

"She will have to show people that she is not the person her critics describe: radically liberal, ruthlessly ambitious, or ethically compromised," the New York Times said yesterday.

"She will also have to overcome her reputation for political calculation, an inconsistent stump presence and her intimate ties to the polarizing events of her husband's White House tenure," the Los Angeles Times said.

"Clinton is known for her upright bearing and her bare knuckles," the Chicago Tribune said. At this stage, at least, many journalists seem determined to take the Democratic front-runner down a peg or two.

Don't Blog About Us!

London's Daily Telegraph has decided that this blogging thing is fine -- up to a point.

Hours before Saddam Hussein's execution, Toby Harnden, the paper's Washington correspondent, filed a story saying that the former Iraqi dictator "will spend the last moments of his life hooded" before he is hanged. Hussein declined the hood, but a rewritten Telegraph piece for the final edition repeated the erroneous detail.

In a blog posting on his paper's Web site earlier this month, Harnden responded to a reader who said, along with some unprintable words, that his story was "full of inaccuracies and made-up background."

"You're right that writing about Saddam's hanging before it happened was not my finest hour. It was one of those tricky journalistic challenges . . . The doomed dictator remains forever hooded in the headline. Hey, ho," he wrote.

Harnden said nothing about the paper's management, except to praise "my industrious online colleagues" for updating his story. Still, the Telegraph responded by taking down the posting and warning its staff. According to the Guardian, the Telegraph's Web editor wrote: "Please avoid blogging about your relationship with your employer, whether the Telegraph Media Group as an entity, 'the desk,' or 'my boss,' even in jest. Such comments are frequently misconstrued and can easily backfire. Think carefully before blogging about journalists' 'tricks of the trade.' "

Says Harnden: "The whole episode was pretty unfortunate. I think some lessons have been learned about the nature of blogging and its relationship to traditional reporting as we all try to grapple with the new online world."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company