Right-wing smear machine falls for fake Obama quote labeled as "satire"

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

Right-wing media figures trumpeted a blogger's fake report that in a college thesis -- which the post's author claimed was obtained by Time's Joe Klein -- President Obama attacked the Founders and the Constitution. Lou Dobbs ran with the claim even after Klein had denied the story, Michael Ledeen had apologized for having repeated it, and Rush Limbaugh had acknowledged that it might not be accurate.

"Thesis" report originated in August "satire" blog post

Post: In Columbia thesis, Obama attacked Constitution, Founders. An August 25 post to the blog Jumping In Pools -- posted by Matthew Avitable and purportedly written by "Brian Lancaster" -- reported that in his Columbia University thesis, Obama wrote that the current economic system was "tyranny," that "[t]he so-called Founders did not allow for economic freedom" in the Constitution, that "the distribution of wealth is not even mentioned" in the Constitution, and that "[w]hile many believed that the new Constitution gave them liberty, it instead fitted them with the shackles of hypocrisy." From the post:

A political science major, Obama was seen as a top student, according to his classmates. Professors even asked the young student to lecture several times. Obama was required to write a 'senior seminar' paper in order to graduate from Columbia. The subject of this paper, which totaled 44 pages, was American government. Entitled Aristocracy Reborn, this paper chronicled the long struggle of the working class against, as Obama put it, "plutocratic thugs with one hand on the money and the other on the government."

In the paper, in which only the first ten pages were given to the general media, Obama decries the plight of the poor: "I see poverty in every place I walk. In Los Angeles and New York, the poor reach to me with bleary eyes and all I can do is sigh."

In part, the future President blames this on the current economic system: "There are many who will defend the 'free market.' But who will defend the single mother of four working three jobs. When a system is allowed to be free at the expense of its citizens, then it is tyranny."

However, the President also singled out the American Constitution: "... the Constitution allows for many things, but what it does not allow is the most revealing. The so-called Founders did not allow for economic freedom. While political freedom is supposedly a cornerstone of the document, the distribution of wealth is not even mentioned. While many believed that the new Constitution gave them liberty, it instead fitted them with the shackles of hypocrisy."

Post: Thesis "leaked out" when Klein was investigating Obama's education. "With all of the secrecy regarding the President's academic record, famed Time reporter Joe Klein looked into the records for an upcoming special edition about the President. Klein included several key points in the piece, including his grades and stellar letters of recommendation. However, what has leaked along with this information was the subject of a thesis written by the young Obama while still an undergraduate at Columbia."

Post includes no evidence. The piece includes no links to primary sources, images of the purported thesis, documentation for the "first ten pages" of the thesis supposedly "given to the general media," or other evidence of any kind.

Post tagged as "satire." Buried in the tags at the bottom of the post is the tag "satire."

Conservative media discover post and trumpet it

Ledeen: "Maybe instead of fuming about words that Rush Limbaugh never uttered, the paladins of the free press might ask the president about words that he did write." In an October 21 post, Pajamas Media blogger Michael Ledeen -- the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and contributing editor at National Review Online -- wrote: "I missed this first time around. Brian Lancaster at Jumping in Pools reported on Obama's college thesis, written when he was at Columbia." After quoting from the Jumping in Pools post on Obama's purported thesis, Ledeen commented: "Maybe instead of fuming about words that Rush Limbaugh never uttered, the paladins of the free press might ask the president about words that he did write. Maybe he'd like to parse 'the so-called Founders,' for example. I'd like to know what he thinks of those words today. And what about the rest of the thesis?"

Fox Nation: "College Thesis: 'So-Called Founders Didn't Allow for Economic Freedom.' " On October 23, Fox Nation linked to (later deleted) and provided text from Ledeen's post:

American Thinker: "What on earth does this President have to do to get the media coverage he so richly deserves!" In an October 23 post, American Thinker's Denis Keohane cited Ledeen's post and wrote:

What on earth does this President have to do to get the media coverage he so richly deserves!

In the Virginia Governor's race, Republican candidate Robert McDonnell wrote a graduate thesis twenty years ago that could be politically damaging to his campaign. That decades old thesis has been covered by the Washington Post on August 30 and again on September 1. It has been reported on in some depth across the spectrum of media outlets from NPR to US News to the CS Monitor to FOX and on and on!

Or maybe a decades old claim that the U.S. Constitution didn't give early Americans liberty but fitted them with the shackles of hypocrisy doesn't deserve some questions, like what did you mean by that and when and how did your thoughts change -- if they did?

Atlas Shrugs: Obama thesis reveals "America's Worst Nightmare," "an America hater." In an October 23 post -- headlined "EXCERTS FROM OBAMA'S COLUMBIA THESIS REVEALS AMERICA'S WORST NIGHTMARE IS IN THE OVAL OFFICE" -- Atlas Shrugs' Pam Geller cited Keohane's post and wrote:

Obama's political leanings, reflected in these newly released writings from Columbia, leave little wonder as to why he backs dictators, socialists, communists and jihadists. Anyone, anything, except America.

The tiny bit of Obama's academic work that was finally deemed fit to release reveals an America hater. There is a dearth of any early work of Obama's and it's no wonder why. His contempt for the Constitution is clearly reflected in his presidential policy positions and grand scheme to dismantle America, piece by piece (health care, energy, education, American hegemony, transnationalism......)

In an update to the post, Geller wrote: "I am looking for the link for the ten pages .........and I can't find it. But he did say this very thing."

The headline of Geller's blog post and a link to it were posted on her Twitter feed:

Limbaugh: "[T]his little boy in college" had "disdain" for Constitution. On the October 23 edition of his show, after saying that Obama "doesn't like the Constitution," Limbaugh purporting to quote from Obama's thesis, cited Ledeen, and claimed that "this little boy in college" was "writing about [the Constitution] with utter disdain, and he still shares those same feelings."

Klein: Report is "completely false"

In an October 23 post to Time's Swampland blog, Klein wrote, linking to Ledeen's post: "A report is circulating among the wingnuts that I had a peek at Barack Obama's senior thesis. It is completely false. I've never seen Obama's thesis. I have no idea where this report comes from--but I can assure you that it's complete nonsense."

Ledeen apologizes, Limbaugh admits story might be inaccurate

Claiming "I have had this happen to me," Limbaugh says he doesn't care if thesis quotes are fake, "I know Obama thinks it." Later on his October 23 show, Limbaugh said that he "got a note from a researcher who has been scouring the Internet," and that the researcher "can't find any sources for the quote. The blog that Ledeen quotes doesn't have supporting info, supposedly. The source post was from August, says it's going to be in an upcoming report from Joe Klein, but the researcher can't find anything that has come out since, and nothing in Klein's blog. And there haven't been any -- no matches found on the Internet from any of the info or quotes other than the source posting." Limbaugh concluded that "we have to hold out the possibility that this is not accurate," but said that he doesn't "care if these quotes are made up, I know Obama thinks it."

Ledeen: "It's a hoax, or a satire. ... Shame on me." In an October 23 Pajamas Media post, Ledeen wrote:

It's a hoax, or a satire, depending on your point of view. Joe Klein has said that he never read any part of an Obama "thesis" from his Columbia days, and that's conclusive, as far as I'm concerned.

The hoax/satire was written in August, so it's not connected to any current event. I cam across it on Twitter, read the blog, found it interesting, and posted on it. I failed to notice that one of the tags was "satire."

So he got me, and lots of others. It worked because it's plausible. I've done satirical pieces myself, and I know how they can take off. I once wrote one that said that Bill Casey did not die, and was hiding in a bunker under the St Andrews golf course from which he was running Mikhail Gorbachev. I thought it was obviously satirical, but it went like wildfire all over the world. And that was in the days before the Internet.

So I should have picked up some hint, but I didn't. Shame on me.

I'm posting this as quickly as possible. Apologies to the president and to Joe Klein, and to Rush Limbaugh, who had many very wise things to say about the Constitution and the views of the Founders today, and to everyone else who got involved.

Even after Limbaugh, Ledeen backtrack, Dobbs runs with thesis story

Dobbs: Thesis story evidence "the liberal national media" is "look[ing] the other way." On his October 23 radio program, Dobbs stated: "Well, talking about pitiful performances, the liberal national media, which has all but abdicated its responsibilities to inform the American people and do some significant investigative reporting, did such a poor job of vetting the president in the election that they continue to look the other way on a host of issues. This story that I'm about to tell you has been out there since late August. There hasn't been a word in the national media about it. It concerns the president's Columbia College thesis. Now, Joe Klein of Time magazine got a hold of 10 whole pages." Dobbs then quoted from the purported thesis and commented: "Whoa."

Klein responds to Ledeen apology

In an update to his October 23 Swampland post, Klein wrote: "Michael Ledeen now has apologized to me on his blog, claiming that he, Limbaugh and others were punked by a satire. I appreciate the apology...but I wonder about what the willingness to take this cheesy crap as gospel says about Ledeen's -- and Boss Rush's -- sensibility. Actually, on second thought, I don't wonder all that much."

Same blogger previously fooled gullible with fake story about Obama and military oath

PolitiFact.com: "Bloggers post bogus claim about Obama and military oath." In a February 11 article, PolitiFact.com reported:

Two weeks ago, Matthew Avitabile, a 22-year-old grad student in upstate New York, decided to write a tongue-in-cheek blog item that said President Obama wanted soldiers to stop taking an oath to the Constitution and instead pledge their loyalty to the president himself.

Under the fake name Michele Chang -- a name he dreamed up because he had just been talking to someone named Michele -- Avitabile wrote a bogus news story that quoted a statement from White House spokesman Robert Gibbs saying, "The president feels that the military has been too indoctrinated by the old harbingers of hate: nationalism, racism, and classism. By removing an oath to the American society, the soldiers are less likely to commit atrocities like those at Abu Ghraib."

Avitabile labeled it satire in a note beneath the story, but in the superheated world of political blogs, where passions often run faster than reason, that wasn't enough.

The label got left off and his bogus story was quickly copied and pasted on blogs, zapped around the country through chain e-mails, and discussed in YouTube commentaries. Many people didn't bother to verify it and responded with comments of outrage.

Atlas Shrugs' Geller fell for Avitabile's oath satire too. In a January 29 post, Geller linked to Avitabile's post and commented on it, then later said in an update that the blogger Blackfive "tells me they talked to higher ups at the pentagon about the military rumor and it is false," adding that she had "removed the story."

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