Normally when the Washington Post refers to stories on the Internet – even legitimate ones like thinking Al Gore prevailed in the news media’s recount of Florida ballots – the Post’s writing drips with sarcasm as it mocks supposed “conspiracy theorists.”
That Nov. 29 article is constructed almost as a justification for spreading these rumors, including the one about Obama’s supposed childhood attendance at a religious madrassah, a slur that was debunked earlier this year.
The Post article by Perry Bacon Jr. begins by essentially blaming Obama for inviting this outbreak of bigotry. “In his speeches and often on the Internet, the part of Sen. Barack Obama’s biography that gets the most attention is not his race but his connections to the Muslim world,” the story states.
Though noting that Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ in Chicago, the article then veers off into a recitation of right-wing accusations which have circulated on talk radio and the Internet.
The Post, however, treats these slurs seriously, avoiding any direct criticism of their lack of supporting evidence and relying on Obama and his backers to provide the only counter-balance. The Post, in effect, has given its blessing to the legitimacy of the smears.
The article reads: “Despite his denials, rumors and e-mails circulating on the Internet continue to allege that Obama (D-Ill.) is a Muslim, a ‘Muslim plant’ in a conspiracy against America, and that, if elected president, he would take the oath of office using a Koran, rather than a Bible, as did Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the only Muslim in Congress, when he was sworn in earlier this year.”
Nowhere in the Post story does the newspaper comment on the lack of proof that Obama is a “Muslim plant” or that he is part of “a conspiracy against America” or that he would use the Koran at his inauguration.
Indeed, the reference to Ellison seems intended to give substance to the right-wing claims though the Post doesn’t mention the more relevant point, that Obama did not use the Koran when he was sworn in as a senator.
To further bolster the right-wing innuendos, the Post recounts elements of Obama’s family history, including that his paternal grandfather was a Muslim and that Obama’s stepfather occasionally attended services at a mosque in Indonesia.
In another stab at justifying its highlighting to what amounts to anti-Muslim bigotry, the Post notes that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith has been a campaign issue on the Republican side. An obvious difference, however, is that Romney describes himself as a Mormon and Obama denies that he is a Muslim.
After briefly recounting how Obama has dealt with the Muslim rumors, the Post essentially hands over the article to Obama’s right-wing detractors and gives them an open shot to claim whatever they want.
The Post wrote: “An early rumor about Obama's faith came from Insight, a conservative online magazine. The Insight article said Obama had ‘spent at least four years in a so-called madrassa, or Muslim seminary, in Indonesia.’ It attributed this detail to background information the Clinton campaign had been collecting.
“After Obama denied the rumor, Jeffrey Kuhner, Insight's editor, said Obama's ‘concealment and deception was to be the issue, not so much his Muslim heritage,’ and he suggested that the source of the madrassa rumor was the Clinton campaign. The Clinton campaign denied the charge.”
Amazingly, however, the Post makes no effort to evaluate the validity of this right-wing accusation, even though it was investigated at the time and debunked.
As CNN reported on Jan. 22, the Indonesian school that Obama attended as a child was not a religious madrassah where sometimes extreme forms of Islam are taught, but a well-kept public school in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Jakarta.
The boys and girls wear school uniforms and are taught a typical school curriculum today as they were 39 years ago when Obama was a student there while living with his mother in Indonesia, reported CNN correspondent John Vause.
Though most of the school’s students are Muslim – Indonesia is a Muslim country, after all – Vause reported that the religious views of other students are respected and that Christian children at the school are taught that Jesus is the son of God. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Rev. Moon’s Anti-Obama Agit-Prop.”]
Rather than critique this and other anti-Obama rumors, however, the Post does little more than catalogue them. For instance, it cites an article in Human Events that dubs Obama potentially “our first Muslim President.”
The Post also notes how these rumors have circulated on the Internet and on right-wing talk radio, pushed by hosts Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh, who acknowledges getting “confused” between Obama and Osama bin Laden. Some right-wing talkers, the Post adds, make a point of inserting Obama’s middle name, Hussein.
Still, not content to stick with the slurs circulating within the more established right-wing media, the Post dives toward the bottom of the barrel, citing anonymous e-mails, such as one posted at Obama’s own campaign blog by a supposed supporter who wrote about the Right's strategy:
"The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the U.S. from the inside out. … What better way to start than at the highest level, through the President of the United States, one of their own!"
The Post then cites an e-mail from another Web site that claimed "Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim" and that "since it is politically expedient to be a Christian when you are seeking political office in the United States, Obama joined the United Church of Christ to help purge any notion that he is still a Muslim."
In journalism, news organizations are often forced to make difficult decisions about when to ignore spurious charges and when they must be addressed. There is the old adage attributed to Lyndon Johnson that you should call your opponent a “pigf----r” and make him deny it in public.
The press often has let itself be used in such dirty tricks, sometimes because of sloppy journalism and other times because the news outlets are owned by friends or allies of a rival political candidate.
But the journalistic balancing act is even more delicate when dealing with something as personal as religious faith, especially in the context of widespread public prejudice. In such a case, news organizations should demonstrate extraordinary care, a sensitivity almost totally lacking in the Post’s front-page article.
What is perhaps most astonishing about the Post’s article is that it doesn’t insist on proof from right-wing operatives and talk-show hosts about the rumors they are spreading. Nor does it cite contrary information that’s already in the public domain, such as CNN’s report on the madrassa question.
The Post simply recycles the slurs, buys into the bigotry and – in doing so – makes them part of the mainstream debate.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.