By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 22, 2007 7:38 AM
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."
Meanwhile, Clinton may have dominated the Sunday talk shows with the odd timing of her Saturday morning online announcement, as her campaign intended, but she missed all the newsmagazine covers and the weeknight newscasts, which have much bigger audiences than the Sunday chatfests. Bill Richardson grabbed part of the next news cycle by announcing yesterday on ABC's "This Week," with Sam Brownback's Saturday entry into the Republican presidential derby all but lost in the process. If this keeps up, even journalists may lose track of who's running -- or simply ignore all but a few favored candidates.
I'll have to get to Bill Richardson and Sam Brownback in the coming days. Even a cybercolumn can't run on forever.
Here's the memo by Hillary strategist Mark Penn on why she can win: "Hillary is the one potential nominee who has been fully tested, with the Republicans spending nearly $70 million in the last decade to try to defeat her."
The Chicago Tribune piece I quoted earlier also includes these thoughts:
"Hillary Rodham Clinton's bold splash into the presidential waters ensures that for the foreseeable future the race for her fellow Democrats and for Republicans will be about the Clintons--what she does, what he does--bringing with it all the brilliance, triumph, power, passion, drama and love-hate, place-called-Hope, didn't-inhale, flirt-with-disaster madness that defined the eight years of Bill Clinton's presidency.
"But make no mistake: In this race, at this point, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is the sun. Everyone else, including Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, revolves around her."
USA Today doesn't swoon either:
"As New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton plunges into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, she faces resistance from fellow Democrats who don't like her, don't like her positions on issues or don't think she can win . . .
"Clinton is a complicated package. Her constituents and Senate colleagues generally view her as smart and hard-working. On the challenge side of the ledger, there's her personality (perceived in some quarters as chilly), her vote on Iraq (she supported the war) and her gender (are Americans ready for a female president?).
"Then there's that husband of hers. Could there be a more complicated marriage in America?"
There's the Bill factor again.
Get this: Hillary has a new health care plan.
HuffPoster Thomas DeZengotita sympathizes with Hillary's balancing act:
"This is going to be really hard for her. On the one hand, she needs to counter her image as a cold, calculating, ambitious devil-woman with gauzy warm fuzzies--as in that cozy www.votehillary.org/CMS/node/1123"living room announcement of her inclusive hug-us-all presidential candidacy. On the other hand, she has to show she's tough enough to be Commander-in-Chief in The Age of Terror."
Steve Young takes a more personal approach, pronouncing Hillary "cute" and saying he would . . . well, see for yourself.
Hillary remains a media magnet, and other candidates are feeling the gravitational pull, says the New Republic's Michelle Cottle:
"Almost by accident, I found myself with a front row seat for Hillary Clinton's Wednesday press conference about her recent jaunt to Iraq/Afghanistan/Pakistan . . . The Senate television studio was a zoo. In drooling anticipation of the senator's arrival, a couple hundred reporters had crammed themselves together tighter than a can full of Pringles, with many more hovering just beyond the door, prompting multiple Hill veterans to marvel at how they had never, ever seen the place so crazy--not even during impeachment.
"Let's think about that for a moment: Even before announcing her presidential plans, Hillary is already drawing bigger crowds than Bill did after getting busted playing hide the cigar with Monica. Now that is star power . . .
"Now, my assumption going into this Clinton-Obama madness was that the two principals would drown in coverage, while the rest of their colleagues wallowed in non-rock-star obscurity. But so immense is the media energy generated by these two that some of their colleagues may also, on occasion, accidentally benefit from their reflected glory. Take Senator Joe Biden, for instance, who, despite having repeatedly announced his intention to run for president, doesn't exactly have reporters hanging on his every word--much less stalking him for surfside beefcake pics. But, on Wednesday, Biden, along with colleagues Carl Levin and Chuck Hagel, found themselves in the happy position of having booked the Senate TV studio for the half-hour block immediately preceding Hillary's event in order to announce their own anti-Bush-plan Iraq resolution.
"This meant that reporters looking to secure a good seat for the main act came early for the Biden/Levin/Hagel opener. And, even if Biden only got a handful of extra stories out of the coincidence, he clearly enjoyed all the extra attention."
Has Bush become a closet Democrat?
"President Bush this week is prepared to unveil what his aides have billed as a bold new national strategy to confront global climate change and work toward energy independence, even as Democrats push their own, more aggressive approach to the issue," says the Boston Globe.
A new Newsweek poll: "Bush's Iraq plan isn't doing anything for his personal approval rating either; it's again stuck at its lowest point in the history of the poll (31 percent). Meanwhile, the new Democratic-controlled Congress is getting relatively high marks. And 55 percent actually trust Congressional Dems on U.S. policy in Iraq, far more than the 32 percent who trust their commander in chief."
The spotlight is also falling on Michelle Obama, who, at the moment, isn't talking to the press.
One Nebraska Republican has become a media darling, and Power Line's John Hinderaker is ticked off about it:
"One of my pet peeves is the way the press treats Chuck Hagel. A member of one of the most press-beloved of all species, the 'maverick Republican,' Hagel is ritually referred to--especially when he opposes President Bush--as a 'potential presidential candidate.' As I wrote long ago: not as a Republican, he isn't. The idea that Hagel could contend for the Republican nomination is absurd. He has no money, no organization, no standing in the polls. At most gatherings of Republican loyalists, he would more likely be tarred and feathered than nominated.
"So why do our reporters and editors continue to anoint the loathesome Senator Hagel as a possible Presidential candidate whenever they quote him attacking President Bush? I think it's fair to assume that they do it in order to enhance his stature--which is minuscule, in fact, within the party--and thereby advance their story line of deep division among Republicans."
Will the new ethics rules mean a new era in the House and Senate? Don't be so sure, says Time's Karen Tumulty:
"Does this mean Congress will be squeaky clean from here on out? The history of ethics reform is lather-rinse-repeat. Reforms work for a while, until politicians find a way around them. And often, the seeds of the next scandal are sown in the effort to clean up the last one. The classic example is campaign finance reform: In answer to the abuses of Watergate, Congress established PACs, which became their own Culture of Corruption. So they clamped down on them, which led to huge increases in "soft money." So they got rid of soft money in McCain-Feingold, which sent the money into 527s. The result is, there's more money in politics than ever, and it's harder to trace."
The Donald is feeling put upon, says Public Eye:
"Here's publicity-shy mogul Donald Trump, quoted in the Toronto Star, explaining the continuation of his endless, soul-crushing 'feud' with Rosie O'Donnell: 'The real question is, "When's it gonna stop?" And I believe it only stops with you folks and when the media in general stops asking the question. Every question I get is about Rosie.'"
And it's so hard to get the billionaire to talk about it.