Timeline of a smear

››› ››› ROB DIETZ

On January 17, InsightMag.com posted a story stating that Sen. Barack Obama attended a madrassa as a boy and that this information had originated from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's camp. With the aid of the conservative media, InsightMag.com's anonymously sourced report turned into 11 days of baseless accusations against two leading contenders for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

On January 17, InsightMag.com published an article claiming that "researchers connected to" Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) disclosed that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) "spent at least four years in a so-called Madrassa, or Muslim seminary, in Indonesia." The story claimed that "sources close to [a] background check," which was supposedly "conducted by researchers connected to Senator Clinton," said that "[t]he idea is to show Obama as deceptive." These "sources" also speculated that the "the specific Madrassa Mr. Obama attended" might have taught "a Wahhabi doctrine that denies the rights of non-Muslims." The InsightMag.com story also noted that in each of his two books, Obama "mentions but does not expand on his Muslim background." The article cited only anonymous sources. By January 19, the story had been picked up by conservative media figures and given prominent play on major television networks, such as CNN Headline News and Fox News.

On January 29, The New York Times reported that the InsightMag.com article "was able to set off a wave of television commentary, talk-radio chatter, official denials, investigations by journalists around the globe and news media self-analysis that has lasted 11 days and counting." Media Matters for America was one of the first to report on the media's coverage of the smear, including an item posted on January 19. Below is a timeline of how a smear originated by a conservative website turned into 11 days of baseless accusations against two leading contenders for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination:

January 9*

On January 9, eight days before the InsightMag.com story was posted, Chicago Tribune metro columnist Eric Zorn wrote on the Tribune's Change of Subject weblog, "The crazies are sending around an e-mail that attempts to establish that Barack Obama is actually a Muslim who masquerades as a Christian for political advantage. It goes under the heading 'The Enemy Within' and 'Be Careful, Be Very Careful.' "

January 17

On January 17, InsightMag.com posted the original article on the subject. InsightMag.com is the successor to Insight on the News, a biweekly magazine published until April 2004 by News World Communications, the company controlled by Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church that also operates The Washington Times and the wire service United Press International. The website describes itself as a "weekly Internet news magazine."

January 18

On December 13, Jason Zengerle, editor of The Plank, the weblog of The New Republic, predicted that Republicans would "launch a savage and despicable whispering campaign against the guy (Barack Hussein Obama, etc.) and then blame it all on Hillary." On January 18, Zengerle responded to the InsightMag.com article:

The attribution on all this is broad enough ("political opponents within the Democratic Party"; "researchers connected to Senator Clinton") that I suppose this information about Obama could have originated with people in Clinton's orbit. But let's not forget where this information appeared. And let's be on the lookout for who goes on the cable shows and wonders whether "Barack Hussein Obama" is "The Manchurian Madrassa Candidate." Something tells me it isn't going to be Hillary, or any liberal for that matter.

January 19

The next day, as Zengerle predicted, conservatives were abuzz about the article. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Melanie Morgan, and Morgan co-host Lee Rodgers all discussed the InsightMag.com article on their radio programs. But it wasn't just conservative radio hosts who echoed the InsightMag.com accusations. The weblog Think Progress noted that the January 19 editions of Fox News' Fox & Friend First and Fox & Friends discussed the story and even took caller comments about the allegations. That afternoon, Fox News host John Gibson dedicated two segments of The Big Story to the InsightMag.com article, including a discussion with Republican strategist Terry Holt. Gibson read a statement from Obama denying the allegations, and he acknowledged near the end of his show that it "[d]oesn't seem" that "Hillary's fingerprints [are] on the story." But Gibson said earlier in the program that "[t]he New York senator has reportedly outed Obama's madrassa past." Gibson also remarked, "[L]ook at what some anti-Obama Democrats are doing to her political rival now."

The same day, Glenn Beck stated on his CNN Headline News program that the source of the story "is a conservative blog" and that "the odds of this being true pretty darn close to zero," but nevertheless said that "if you live in Chappaqua, New York, and you hear a strange grinding noise coming from the Clinton estate, it could be Hillary Clinton sharpening her knives in the basement." After saying that there was "no evidence" for the charge that Obama "attended a madrassa," Beck continued to assert that Clinton had a "lot to gain" from the story and that she is "that desperate."

None of the seven radio or television hosts mentioned above cited any evidence that Clinton was responsible for promoting the madrassa story, beyond the InsightMag.com article, which cited no one by name.

In a January 19 post on Change of Subject, Zorn wrote, "The source of this rumor seems to be a viral e-mail that I've received at least a dozen times in the last few weeks." He added: "Without any attribution or supporting documentation it spins a tale of Obama being indoctrinated as radical Muslim as a youth living in Indonesia, and claims that he remains 'ideologically' Muslim." After noting Fox News' reporting of the InsightMag.com story, Zorn cited each of Obama's memoirs, including a passage from Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Crown, July 1995), in which Obama wrote: "In Indonesia, I had spent two years at a Muslim school, two years at a Catholic school. In the Muslim school, the teacher wrote to tell my mother that I made faces during Koranic studies." Zorn further cited information provided by Obama's advisers, who noted that Obama was educated in Indonesia beginning in 1967 but that "the type of madrassas linked to the Taliban did not emerge until the Afghan war against the Soviets," which started 12 years later.

January 20

A January 20 New York Post article quoted Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson saying, "We have no connection to this story." The article further reported that Obama strategist David Axelrod said he did not "believe ... for a second" the allegation that Clinton's camp was behind the story. Nonetheless, on the January 20 edition of Fox News' Fox News Watch, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas said there are "[a] lot of questions" about whether Obama "spent two years in a Muslim school in Indonesia," and that "[t]hey start off these schools, if it was a madrassa, with a reference to God and his only prophet is Muhammad." Thomas added: "And that's a fair question, by the way, before anybody writes about religious bigotry."

January 21

On the January 21 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources, CNN and Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz blasted Gibson for not having "done the firsthand reporting" and noted that Obama "writes in his autobiography that he spent two years at a Muslim school in Indonesia." Later in the discussion, CBS national political correspondent Gloria Borger noted that "the easiest thing to do is say that the Hillary Clinton campaign is spreading this about Barack Obama, which is, you know, ridiculous." Borger added that "Hillary Clinton's campaign doesn't need to talk about madrassas when it comes to Barack Obama."

But while Kurtz was questioning the story, conservative columnist Mark Steyn continued to peddle the smear. In his January 21 Chicago Sun-Times column, Steyn wrote that Obama "was raised in an Indonesian madrassah by radical imams" and that "[t]he madrassah stuff was supposedly leaked to Insight Magazine by some oppo-research heavies on Hillary Rodham Clinton's team."

January 22

The morning of January 22 began with a "clarif[ication]" by the hosts of Fox & Friends First, which was reiterated later on Fox & Friends. Co-host Steve Doocy noted that "Mr. Obama's people called and they said that that is absolutely false." Co-host Brian Kilmeade added that the Clinton camp said "[w]e did not have anything to do with that story."

Kurtz returned to the topic in his January 22 "Media Notes" column in the Post. Kurtz called the InsightMag.com story "thinly sourced" and wrote: "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." That afternoon, Kurtz appeared on CNN's The Situation Room and stated that a smear reported by InsightMag.com "got a big boost from Rupert Murdoch's media empire." Kurtz added: "This, unfortunately, is how the media food chain works. A bogus charge appears in some magazine or on some website and works its way up to bigger news outlets, all based on little or no evidence." The report further noted that Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs told Kurtz that Gibbs "didn't think much" of the clarification on Fox & Friends. Kurtz did not note that Beck also had a hand in forwarding the smear in his CNN Headline News program.

That same day, InsightMag.com posted a response to Kurtz's column and claimed that its original story was "not thinly sourced." It added: "The Clinton camp's denial has as much credibility as the 'I never had sex with that woman' statement."

On the same edition of The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer repeatedly teased a report that he promised would "debunk a possible smear campaign against Senator Barack Obama." CNN correspondent John Vause visited "Barack Obama's elementary school in Jakarta" and stated that he's "been to madrassas in Pakistan, and this school is nothing like that." (The report did not address the charge that Clinton was behind the story.) The report was the first of several by major media outlets discrediting the InsightMag.com claim that Obama had attended a madrassa.

January 23

The next day, InsightMag.com responded to CNN's debunking with a post titled "Hats off to CNN, but ... " The response claimed that "CNN didn't debunk anything" and added: "Insight never -- not once -- in its article claims that Obama went to a Madrassa. We didn't claim it; Hillary's people did." Additionally, it rehashed the unfounded smear against Obama and suggested that the issue should be investigated "by other news outlets -- such as Fox News -- who will look the facts straight on, without a vested ideological interest in downplaying Obama's Muslim heritage." InsightMag.com also posed this question of Obama: "If he was raised in a secular household (as he claims), why does he have -- or retain -- Muslim names, Barack and Hussein?"

On the same day, Washington Times editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden's column cast doubt on the veracity of the claim in the InsightMag.com article that Obama attended a madrassa, but he never denounced the second, baseless part of the story -- that Clinton's camp was responsible for spreading the rumor. Pruden also wrote that "maybe Obama himself was behind such a 'leak,' to get the story out where his spinmeisters can cut off the story's legs now, while there's time and opportunity." Pruden wrote that InsightMag.com "is owned by the owners of The Washington Times, but is absolutely, positively and entirely separate from the newspaper" and that the Times "never took up the story, which cited no named sources." After quoting denunciations of the story by Obama and Clinton spokespeople, he claimed that "[t]alk radio and cable television went for" the story in part because "spreading malicious gossip was exactly what everybody expects a Clinton campaign to do."

Despite CNN's debunking and Pruden's column, Boston Herald columnist Virginia Buckingham wrote in a January 23 column: "Everything there is to know about [Sen.] John Kerry's [D-MA] record is known. Obama? Well, for starters, we're just hearing a bit about the senator's early education at a madrassah in Indonesia. Yes, the source is Insight Magazine, run by the Moonies, but I haven't heard a strong denial from the Obama camp. What else will we learn about this Democratic 'rock star'' in the YouTube era?"

Conservative talk-show hosts were equally unwilling to let the story go. On the January 23 edition of KSFO's Morning Show, Morgan and Rodgers repeated the claim that Obama "went to a Muslim school, a madrassa they call it. ... [T]hose things are funded by Saudi Arabia." They also cited a report alleging that the story came from the campaign of former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC). Morgan claimed the new charge originated from U.S. News & World Report's "Washington Whispers," but Media Matters found no such article on the weblog or in the magazine. Rodgers reiterated comments he made January 19 on the Morning Show, during which he suggested that Obama may be a "death target" because of the revelation that he was born the son of a Muslim. On the January 23 show, Rodgers said: "If your father is a Muslim, you're a Muslim, and as far as Islamic law is concerned, you are a Muslim forevermore. ... And Islamic law says: 'You try to get out, any Muslim has not only the right but the duty to kill you.' "

January 24

On January 24, the Associated Press reaffirmed CNN's debunking of the charge that Obama attended a madrassa in Jakarta. The article reported that "[i]nterviews by The Associated Press at the elementary school in Jakarta found that it's a public and secular institution that has been open to students of all faiths since before the White House hopeful attended in the late 1960s."

That morning, Obama appeared on CBS' The Early Show to respond to President Bush's State of the Union address. Co-host Harry Smith asked Obama to respond to the allegations forwarded by InsightMag.com. Obama called the attacks "scurrilous" and said: "Unfortunately, they get repeated. And fortunately some good journalists showed that they were complete fabrications." That same day, in a memo released on January 24 and picked up by National Journal's The Hotline, Obama's office called the reports "malicious, irresponsible charges."

January 25

On the morning of January 25, on the front page of ABC News' website, a headline read: "Madrassa Madness: Was Hillary Behind Obama Smear?" below pictures of Clinton and Obama, despite the fact that the article to which the headline links notes that the accusation that Clinton is responsible for the smear "remains unproven and unsubstantiated." The January 25 ABCNews.com article bearing that headline was written by ABC News senior national correspondent Jake Tapper, who described the InsightMag.com article as "since-discredited." He wrote that InsightMag.com "cited [only] unnamed sources" and noted that, since the article was published, media figures have "repeat[ed] the false charges" against Obama "while bemoaning the notion that the Clinton campaign was investigating Obama's past, a charge that remains unproven and unsubstantiated."

A separate ABCNews.com article posted January 25 quoted a statement by Fox News senior vice president of programming Bill Shine. Shine stated that "when John Gibson focused on the item, he, like other news outlets, presented Senator Obama's statement on the subject. We consider the matter closed and believe the senator feels the same way." Shine also stated: "[T]he hosts of 'Fox & Friends' gave too much credence to the Insight magazine report and spent far too long discussing its premise on the air. Those remarks, however, were clarified on the next 'Fox & Friends' program." But in the portion of the statement quoted in the ABCNews.com article, Shine failed to address statements Gibson made about Clinton's involvement in the smear, and never addressed Obama's reported dissatisfaction with the Fox & Friends clarification.

On the January 25 edition of the Morning Show, Morgan and Rodgers continued their discussion of the accusation. Rodgers acknowledged that the story had been "discredited" by CNN but in turn purported to discredit CNN by claiming that the network is "the propaganda mouthpiece for the political left. They're the Democratic Party's Al Jazeera."

January 27

On January 27, the first editorial from a major U.S. newspaper on the smear appeared in the Chicago Tribune. The editorial said that "what Insight did on its Web site, and what Fox News did in repeating the report" was "unethical, unprofessional and shabby, a trifecta, if you will, in the world of journalism."

In a column posted the same day, Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter addressed the coverage of the smear. According to Alter, "Gibson -- once a respected correspondent and host -- went on the radio to malign the CNN reporter, John Vause. He 'probably went to the very [same] madrassa' as Obama, Gibson said."

January 28

The next day, The Washington Post editorial board chimed in. The editorial stated: "Insight, whose piece was eagerly touted by Fox News Network, might have learned" that Obama attended a public school in Indonesia, not a madrassa, "if it had bothered to check its story rather than cravenly attributing the false report to 'Hillary Clinton's camp,' citing unnamed 'sources close to the background check' that the New York senator supposedly conducted into Mr. Obama."

The discussion of the smear continued on the January 28 broadcast of Inside Washington -- a weekly news program on ABC's Washington, D.C., affiliate, WJLA-TV -- when syndicated columnist Mark Shields said: "Now we have these smear tactics being used against Barack Obama by Fox News, by Steve Doocy and John Gibson, just running with this story, which is a total fabrication, totally unfair, and this is early in the ballgame. And then, they try to pin it on Clinton. I've got to tell you, this is beyond the pale. Have they no decency left at last in our business?" Moments later, in response, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer suggested that the story still had legs and that despite all the debunking, there were still unanswered questions. Krauthammer said: "I don't know where the story came from, whether it was a Clinton leak or not. But there is a question about what was his childhood like, which is quite interesting. He was in Indonesia. Let's hear about it."

January 29

Twelve days after the InsightMag.com story was posted, and one week after it was first debunked by CNN, Fox News political analyst Dick Morris continued to speculate on the story's origin. Appearing on the January 29 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, Morris said: "I believe that that Insight magazine story that was inaccurate, that he went to a Muslim school, was indeed planted, as Insight magazine said, by somebody close to the Clinton war room." Co-host Alan Colmes asked Morris whether that statement was also "a smear against the Clintons." Morris replied: "No, it's an accurate description of their tactics."

The same day, The New York Times featured an article about the smear on its front page. The article noted that InsightMag.com editor Jeffrey Kuhner "said he still considered the article, which he said was meant to focus on the thinking of the Clinton campaign, to be 'solid as solid can be.' " The New York Times article added that the InsightMag.com "article followed a series of inaccurate or hard-to-verify articles on Insight and its predecessor magazine about politics, the Iraq war or the Bush administration, including a widely discussed report on the Insight Web site that President Bush's relationship with his father was so strained that they were no longer speaking to each other about politics." The New York Times article also reported that The Washington Times "quickly disavowed the article." The article said The Washington Times' "national editor sent an e-mail message to staff members under the heading 'Insight Strikes Again' telling them to 'make sure that no mention of any Insight story' appeared in the paper."

The New York Times story was also discussed on the January 29 edition of PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer by Jeffrey Brown, senior correspondent for The NewsHour; David D. Kirkpatrick, who wrote the New York Times article; and Ellen Hume, the director of the Center on Media and Society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Kirkpatrick appeared to refer to Shine's statement in saying: "[A]nd in Fox's defense, it was mostly their commentators who picked it up. It wasn't their news reporter who picked it up. And they've apologized. They said they made a mistake.' " But, again, Shine's statement apparently did not address the allegation that Clinton was behind the madrassa smear -- an allegation that Gibson promoted.

Earlier in the discussion, Brown described the original InsightMag.com story as "quite a story itself: discussed as though fact, debunked as fiction; a case study in how information -- anonymous and apparently incorrect information in this case -- can spread quickly and cause a political stir." Hume called the story "a perfect political hit -- they tried to kill off two Democratic campaigns at the same time" and added: "[A]ll of this paints journalists with a brush that is, unfortunately, not bringing audience to real news. It's murking up the media landscape in a way that journalists have a very hard time recovering from."

* Since the original posting of this item, two additions have been made -- both references to weblog posts by Zorn.

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