Fighting Whispers

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008 11:05 AM

Newsrooms, by definition, are awash in rumors.

People in this line of work hear things, often outrageous things that may or may not be true.

I remember Marcia Kramer of New York's WCBS-TV telling me how she'd heard a vague rumor that Eliot Spitzer might be involved with prostitutes. She dutifully called the governor's office, but wasn't able to confirm anything before the New York Times broke the story.

When public officials deny rumors that can't be proven, a journalistic dilemma arises. Publishing such a story--even making clear that it's false--has the unavoidable effect of spreading the falsehood. On the other hand, remaining silent does nothing to quiet the inevitable whispering campaigns.

Presidential candidates and their aides usually do everything in their power to keep scurrilous yarns out of print and off the air. But Barack Obama's team has made a different decision, launching a Web site to combat what it says is garbage being circulated about the Illinois senator.

Here's an example from Fight the Smears:

"Lie: On May 30th, Rush Limbaugh said he had heard a rumor that a tape exists of Michelle Obama using the word 'Whitey' from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ.

"Truth: No such tape exists. Michelle Obama has not spoken from the pulpit at Trinity and has not used that word.

"Lie: Blogger Larry Johnson wrote on May 31st that he would add 'New and dramatic developments. This is a heads up. I'll post the news Monday morning by 0900 hours. Now I know why people who have seen the videotape say it is stunning. Barack's headaches are only starting.'

"Truth: Johnson posted no such update.

"Lie: Proven GOP sleazemeister Roger Stone said on Fox News on June 1st that 'there's a buzz, which I believe now to be credible, that some indelible record exists' of a tape of Michelle Obama using the term 'whitey.' "

Well, we heard that one at The Washington Post, too. I remember being skeptical that such a tape, if it existed, hadn't already surfaced.

I wonder if the Web site will be effective for the Obama camp, or just wind up feeding the cyberflames.

El Rushbo responds: "I heard about this for two weeks before I ever commented on this. I heard about it for two weeks. I didn't talk about it. I didn't repeat it. I didn't reference it, and then all of a sudden I see that some in the Drive-By Media think that Hannity has the tape and that he is holding the tape. Then some other people said the RNC had the tape and they're going to hold the tape 'til October, they were not going to release it prior to the Democrat nomination fight finishing 'cause they didn't want to get rid of Obama because they think he's the weakest candidate of the two, since Hillary was on her way out, let's leave her out. And then after two or three weeks of this, I did mention it as a rumor going around 'cause it had reached critical mass and there were people saying that they had seen it, but they wouldn't produce it . . .

"I was last in line on this one. I was a nonfactor on this. But, what happens is, this is as far as the Drive-Bys are concerned, folks, and this is an example of the power of this program. When the Drive-Bys are looking at Republicans or conservatives to really nail us to the wall, until I mention it, it doesn't matter."

L.A. Times columnist James Rainey says it could be worse:

"Call me quaint and old-fashioned, but I give most of the mainstream media a hearty pat on the back for refusing to spread the inflammatory and thoroughly unsubstantiated rumor that Michelle Obama once railed against 'whitey' from a pulpit.

"Fervent e-mails and blogs have buzzed since late May with 'news' that a videotape would emerge of Barack Obama's wife spewing the racial epithet. The claim propped up a fantastical caricature -- the mother, lawyer, Ivy League graduate and potential first lady as a seething member of the hate-American-first club."

John McCain did quite well at a town hall meeting last night, carried by Fox--but then, why not? The thing was an infomercial, complete with an 18-minute opening statement. Fox appeared to exercise no editorial control, and the questions were pretty friendly. In fact, Shepard Smith felt compelled to say that the McCain camp had given the tickets to supporters after assuring Fox it would be an audience of Republicans, Democrats and independents. Howard Dean accused McCain of "copying the Bush campaign model of stacking events with his prescreened supporters."

In fairness, Fox offered to carry a similar Obama event, and an Obama spokesman told me it's under consideration along with other media offers.

Says the Boston Globe: "Launching the website breaks what has been a conventional mindset in American politics: that giving attention to rumors only dignifies and broadcasts them to more voters. But the rising influence of blogs - and the attention more mainstream media outlets now pay to them - makes it increasingly untenable for candidates to ignore swirling speculation, even if it's baseless."

"But the pitfalls of such a performance were also apparent Thursday night, with Mr. McCain's best moment coming from his friendly audience rather than himself," says the Washington Times. "The final questioner was a self-identified conservative Hispanic voter who said as a Catholic, as a father and as a Hispanic American, Mr. McCain's policies were very attractive to him.

"By contrast, Mr. McCain stumbled his way through his answer to the man, even appearing to forget or be confused by the question."

Could we be looking at summertime debates after all?

"Sen. John McCain was the first to suggest that he and Sen. Barack Obama hold joint town hall meetings, but nothing seemed to come of it," the Chicago Tribune reports.

"Now comes former First Lady Nancy Reagan and the daughters of former President Lyndon Johnson, Lynda Johnson Robb and Luci Baines Johnson, to renew the invitation.

"The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, have invited McCain and Obama to participate in town hall meetings at their libraries in July, before the party conventions are held."

Much chatter about a Fox News "chyron," or headline, saying: "Outraged Liberals: Stop Picking on Obama's Baby Mama!"

"The pro-GOP network did, indeed, call Michelle Obama Barack Obama's 'baby mama,' " says Salon Editor Joan Walsh. "It wasn't some freelance commentator spouting off; it was a network-produced headline . . .

"Where do you even start when criticizing Fox's slur? Do you try to explain that 'baby mama' is slang for the unmarried mother of a man's child, and not his wife, or even a girlfriend? Are they racist, or just clueless? Isn't there racism even in their cluelessness, if somebody didn't know what 'baby mama' means, but used it anyway? Even at Fox, won't somebody have to apologize? Am I wasting my time even thinking about that?"

Michelle Malkin was part of that segment:

"I did not write the caption and I was not aware of it when it ran (the Baltimore studio doesn't have a monitor). I don't know if the caption writer was making a lame attempt to be hip, clueless about the original etymology of the phrase, or both. But I do know that it was Michelle Obama herself who referred to Barack as her 'baby's daddy' and has used the phrase 'baby daddy' to describe Barack while on the stump this year."

Fox is now saying that a producer " exercised poor judgment" in putting up the line. Ya think?

Obama's decision to jettison Jim Johnson as his veep screener (or allow Johnson to jettison himself) is generating some punditry. My colleague Chris Cillizza says:

"For some Democrats, Obama's quick move to separate himself from Johnson will be seen as a caving to Republicans. There will almost certainly be more of these Republican attacks; by removing Johnson, Obama has only emboldened GOPers for the next time around, goes the argument."

Atlantic's Marc Ambinder also describes the move as capitulation:

"Where does the war of attritition end? And why did the Obama campaign, if they were standing on principle, decide to back down in the face of criticism? If Obama's choice of Johnson was a mistake in the first place, then that's one thing. But if the campaign doesn't believe they made an error -- and they don't -- why give the Republicans a trophy head?"

On the other hand, how many days did Obama, who is running against old-style Washington politics, want to spend defending a man who epitomizes old-style Washington politics?

The Wall Street Journal editorial page sees a pattern:

"It turns out that Jim Johnson was not the man Barack Obama thought he knew. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee threw the former Fannie Mae CEO over the side as his vice presidential vetter yesterday, only a day after he'd said that Mr. Johnson was only 'tangentially related' to his campaign and that criticism was a 'game that can be played.' . . .

"Mr. Johnson now joins an intriguing and growing list of Mr. Obama's ex-associates that includes the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Father Michael Pfleger, and former terrorist bomber William Ayers. We might call this list eclectic, except that there is a consistent pattern of bad judgment followed by an initial defense, then followed by rapid disassociation and regret that none of them were the men Mr. Obama 'knew.' "

The Huffington Post tells the world, based on this Politico/Yahoo interview, that John McCain doesn't know how to use a computer! Says Mac: "I am an illiterate that has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance I can get."

Atrios is among the shocked-and-appalled set:

"I think in 2008 computer use and understanding of the Internet should be part of the basic skill set we expect from people in positions of prominent public leadership. It's pretty much impossible to have any kind of understanding of how people in the modern world go about their lives and work without that.

"The Internet is not a fad or the playground for 17 year olds. I don't mean it's important for someone running for president to spend his/her days on Facebook or becoming immersed in all of the various internet subcultures. But how can you have any genuine sense of contemporary life unless you at least have some clue?"

It's like . . . not knowing how to use a cellphone!

You can scoff at the following, by National Review's Jim Geraghty, but I have heard lots of chatter about this Obama-and-Scarlett story:

"One of the nice things about Barack Obama is that he doesn't seem as starstruck in the face of Hollywood celebrities.

"He seems relatively free of the unseemly manner that consumed the previous Democratic president when in the presence of famous faces. For all the flaws of an Obama presidency, it would seem we would at least avoid Markie Post jumping on the bed in the Lincoln Bedroom, Barbra Streisand complaining about the President spending too much time with Sharon Stone, a president meeting in his first 125 days with Billy Crystal, Streisand, Sharon Stone (twice), Richard Gere, Richard Dreyfuss, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Quincy Jones, Sinbad, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Sam Waterston, Hammer, Lindsay Wagner and Judy Collins . . .

"So far, the grittier, urbane, worldly Obama seems immune to the seductive charm of Hollywood glamour, indifferent to the . . . what? . . .

"I love [Scarlett] Johansson's incredulity that a blonde bombshell starlet gets personal e-mails returned. Of course, I'm sure the senator responds to a lot of e-mails from supporters, not just those who look like this."

Obligatory sexy photo follows.

The libs are still chewing over McCain's latest Iraq comment, with the New Republic's Jonathan Chait trying to put it in a larger context:

"The controversy du jour is John McCain's comment that it's 'not too important' when American troops come home. McCain's campaign is hitting back on this, and it's certainly true that McCain proceeds to say that what matters is whether American troops are taking casualties. But I think McCain's comment, like his '100 years' [comment], is an important and legitimate thing for Obama to focus on . . .

"McCain's goal of turning Iraq into a place where American soldiers can stay peacefully, like West Germany or South Korea, is wildly unrealistic. I won't say it's impossible, because anything is possible. But the history of the Middle East suggests that Iraqis are never going to accept a long-term American military presence. Indeed, even if you thought Iraqis would welcome American troops as liberators, which was optimistic but not totally crazy, it would take a whole different level of delusional optimism to think that they'd also welcome scores of permanent U.S. bases in the country. So these comments are a window into McCain's rosy scenario that ought to be challenged."

The media's veep-vetting continues, with Time's Jay Newton-Small offering a little-known fact about one of McCain's faves:

"Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal has been mentioned as a potential veep for McCain, and he may bring some, um, interesting talents to the table -- such as [exorcism]. This 1994 New Oxford Review article authored by Jindal, who converted to Catholicism in high school and is known for being very devout, has been kicking around the blogosphere. In it he talks about witnessing the exorcism of a female friend he identifies only as Susan."

Well, you never know when that might come in handy at the White House.

Finally, there isn't much evidence, and the man himself declines comment, but the Newark Star-Ledger puts it in play:

"It's a hot topic in Republican political and fundraising circles: CNN's Lou Dobbs is thinking of running for governor of New Jersey.

"Several well-connected Republicans say they've heard the buzz that Dobbs, famous for his sharp commentary about Washington policies and politics, may be turning his sights on Trenton and has inquired about the steps necessary to start a campaign."

What? Don't cable hosts have far more power?

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