Refuting, or Feeding, the Rumor Mill?

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Stories about rumors are tricky and easily misconstrued. A Nov. 29 story and headline that explored Barack Obama's "connections to the Muslim world" and rumors that he is Muslim were met with a swift Internet reaction that left some staffers stunned at its ferocity. Even Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles was "so upset" that he took the unusual step of taking potshots at the story in an editorial page cartoon.

My problems with the story by National Desk political reporter Perry Bacon Jr. and the headline ("Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him") were that Obama's connections to Islam are slender at best; that the rumors were old; and that convincing evidence of their falsity wasn't included in the story.

But there was no deliberate "smear job," as some readers charged. The story said clearly in the second paragraph that Obama is a member of a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago.

That did not satisfy many readers, liberal Web sites and the Obama campaign. Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director, said the story was "egregious. I thought the story was a great way to perpetuate a rumor or innuendo without the simple act of saying it was wrong." Gibbs said the story should have said flatly that Obama is a Christian. "This is an ascertainable, knowable and irrefutable fact." Gibbs said that "one half of the story was a billboard for the rumors."

"This was a legitimate subject for journalism explored by one of our most sophisticated political reporters," said Managing Editor Philip Bennett. "We should have been clearer about what it did and didn't say -- in the headline, through the display and in the body of the piece."

Bacon referred a request for comment to Bill Hamilton, assistant managing editor for politics. Hamilton edited the story, which several top editors saw before it was published. "I'm sorry it was misunderstood," he said. "It obviously makes me think about how I edited it. It seemed to me the story made clear that Obama was not a Muslim but that the campaign was having trouble contending with people spreading that rumor. I thought that in this context saying it was a rumor meant it wasn't true, but clearly some people didn't see it the same way. The Post has a responsibility to confront seemingly credible rumors and that was one of the reasons for the story."

To make the story worth Page 1, there needed to be new, credible information. No one from Iowa or New Hampshire, where Obama has been campaigning heavily, was quoted. More reporting or waiting for a news peg for the story would have helped. A perfect peg would have been the Hillary Clinton campaign's dismissal of a volunteer last week in Iowa for forwarding an e-mail saying Obama is a Muslim. Hamilton said, "I don't think rumors like this will die. Obama is going to have a problem with them as long as he's a candidate."

According to Obama's book, "Dreams From My Father," and to Gibbs, Obama's Kenyan father was an atheist. His Kenyan grandfather, whom he never met, was Muslim. His stepfather was a "skeptic" but occasionally went to a mosque while living with Obama and his mother in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country. Obama has mentioned his time in Indonesia as well as his Kenyan forbears on the campaign trail. But he also touts his Christianity.

Bacon's story said that the rumors "echoed on Internet message boards and chain e-mails" and that talk-show hosts "occasionally" repeated the rumors. The story also brought up a discredited Jan. 16 story in Insight magazine, which is owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church and owner of the Washington Times. The Insight story said that Obama had gone to a madrassa, an Islamic religious school, as a child. CNN, ABC-TV and the Associated Press went to the school and reported that it was not a religious school but a public school. Bacon's story should have noted that information, which was also reported at the time by Post media writer Howard Kurtz. The Insight story was criticized in a Jan. 28 Post editorial.

Another problem: Bacon's story also picked up a quote labeling Obama a Muslim from the Snopes.com Web site, which knocks down Internet rumors, but it didn't mention the investigation that found the rumor to be false.

Bacon got the idea for the story last month after hearing an Iowa voter, wrongly and insistently, say that Obama was a Muslim, learning that Obama had a letter from Christian leaders attesting to his faith and hearing Obama cite living in the "largest Muslim country on Earth" as a foreign policy credential.

Hundreds of negative comments, e-mails and phone calls about the story came to The Post; only one e-mail to me was positive. Gregory Hays of Charlottesville was typical, though more civil than many: "When a newspaper's articles are providing fodder for its own editorial cartoonist, something is seriously wrong. . . . The article, which I read thoroughly, seemed to give some credence to the campaign to smear Senator Obama as a closeted Muslim, if only by the fact that it was given a place on the front page instead of being buried on page 70 or so as an utterly baseless rumor being put out."

Hamilton said, "Reasonable people can disagree on this. But the people I have heard from are not reasonable. What I find especially disheartening is the idea that our motives are simply assumed to have been malicious."

This is the new world mainstream journalists live in, one that will continue to be explored in this column.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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