Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Updating Mark Twain for the 24/7 disinformation era

The emails are still showing up in my inbox. Thus far, there have been dozens. Here’s yet another typical entry, received today:

“I keep hearing, but I can’t seem to confirm, that Barack Obama’s religion is Muslim and that as an impressionable youngster overseas, he was taught radical Muslim doctrines at a Muslim school abroad. If this is true, how can anyone think that a Muslim can be elected president, much less taking an oath on the Koran? Why aren’t you writing about this?”

Well, I know this is going to sound like a quaint notion, but I try not to write about rumors that have no basis in fact. Call me crazy, but I generally try to avoid being infected by the germs that move so rapidly through the nation’s 24/7 disinformation bloodstream.

But every once in awhile, at the risk of aiding and abetting this lamentable contemporary phenomenon, I find it expedient to pay attention, if only for the purpose of putting in a plug for traditional journalistic standards. You know, for the antiquated stuff like truth and accuracy.

I did this back in February 2004, when I wrote how conservative media outlets had managed to spread a rumor that future Democratic nominee John Kerry had dallied with an intern, despite the dearth of empirical proof. (That one managed to stay alive for nearly two weeks, and it foreshadowed the Swift Boat strategy by about six months.) Similarly, it’s now worth assessing the persistent (and false) rumor about Barack Obama’s pernicious doings in elementary school, if only as an indicator of how the purveyors of unsubstantiated factoids can be expected to operate during the long ’08 presidential campaign.

Mark Twain once wrote that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes," but that was so 100 years ago; today he would be saddened to discover that a lie can traverse the globe in a millisecond before the truth is even clued in.
The Obama case is Exhibit A; for those of you who haven’t tracked this “story,” here’s a brief recap:

On Jan. 17, a web site called Insightmag.com, a remnant of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s conservative media empire, posted a report that young Obama had attended a radical Muslim religious seminary – in other words, a madrassa – while living in Indonesia. The web site, which is run by a former Republican policy staffer, said: “Today most of these schools are financed by the Saudi Arabian government, and they teach a Wahhabi doctrine that denies the rights of non-Muslims.” The web site also said that the information about Obama had been unearthed by Hillary Clinton’s dirt-digging campaign operatives. (In other words, this report was a twofer, casting both Obama and Clinton in a negative light.)

On Jan. 19, three conservative talk-show hosts (Rush Limbaugh being the most prominent) picked up the report. On that same day, two different shows on Fox News aired segments about the report. There were no indications, on either show, that Fox News had attempted to verify the accuracy of the report. There no indications that Fox News had sought to determine whether the school that Obama attended 35 years ago had taught the Wahhabi doctrine.

Instead, host John Gibson offered this commentary: “Americans have a visceral reaction to the word 'madrassa.' In our world, a madrassa is where zealots train your Muslim kids to hate America, to hate the West, and to be killers. Saying Obama attended a madrassa is tying Obama's name to terrorism, and that is real political hardball in action, especially when Obama himself said in his own book that he attended a predominantly Muslim school as a youngster in Indonesia." (His reference to “real political hardball” was aimed at the Hillary Clinton dirt-diggers who supposedly found the goods on Obama.)

The New York Post, which, like Fox News, is part of the Murdoch media empire, also picked up the story…even though it soon began to fall apart. By Jan. 20, the Obama camp had condemned the Insight report as “a complete contrivance,” reiterating Obama’s own previous statements about being a committed Christian since he was in his twenties. And the Clinton camp had stated that it had no role in the report. (Over the past week, nobody at Fox News, and none of the talk-show hosts, have offered any information linking the Clinton camp to the rumor.)

And on Jan. 22, CNN put the kibosh on the story the old-fashioned way: the network actually sent a reporter to Indonesia to check things out (unlike Insightmag.com., which says it doesn’t have the money to send out reporters). CNN’s on-the-scene conclusion: the school that young Obama attended was basically a secular public institution that offered religion classes only once a week; and the school was not influenced by radical Wahhabism anyway - especially at that time, when Indonesia was widely known to be a highly secular Muslim nation.

It speaks volumes about this “story” that not even The Washington Times, nor the web-based Drudge Report, saw fit to pass it along. It has also been debunked by ABC and the Associated Press. And there was this confession, reported two days ago, from a senior veep at Fox News: “The hosts violated one of our general rules, which is know what you are talking about. They reported information from a publication (Insight) whose accuracy we don’t know.” (He also might have added that any report that fails to distinguish between secular Muslims and radical Muslims is basically playing to the widespread American ignorance of foreign cultures.)

But back to the updated Mark Twain rule: Even though the Insight rumor has been discredited, I am still receiving these emails from inquiring readers. Here’s another: “Osama was enrolled in a Wahabi school in Jakarta. Wahabism is the radical teaching that is followed by the Muslim terrorists who are now waging Jihad against the western world. Since it is politically expedient to be a Christian when seeking major public office in the United States, Barack Hussein Obama has joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background.”

In other words, there are many ways to perpetuate rumors; even after they die on the air, they can still be circulated under the radar, freed from the dictates of empirical testing, until they are ubiquitous. This morning, I casually mentioned the Obama rumor to a Penn student, and she immediately replied, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard about that.”

I also find it interesting that I was deluged with these emails right after I wrote a print column which argued that Americans are now “ready” for a qualified black president. The message, as I interpret it, is this: If Obama detractors can’t persuade people to oppose a black man, maybe they can persuade people to oppose a (falsely depicted) black Muslim man. It is for such purposes that the 24/7 disinformation phenomenon is ideally suited.