Wash. Post's Bacon reported only Obama's denials of madrassa smear, not media debunkings

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

A Washington Post article on how Sen. Barack Obama "has had to address assertions that he is a Muslim" reported that 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' " [emphasis in original]. But rather than citing the investigative reports conclusively debunking the smear, or providing his own reporting on whether the school Obama attended was, in fact, a madrassa, Bacon reported only that "Obama denied the rumor," portraying the issue as a "he said/he said" dispute. CBSNews.com featured the Post article as the top story on its home page.

In a November 29 front-page article on how Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) "has had to address assertions that he is a Muslim or that he had received training in Islam in Indonesia, where he lived from ages 6 to 10," Washington Post staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. reported that 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' " [emphasis in original]. But rather than citing the investigative reports by CNN, the Associated Press, and ABC News conclusively debunking the smear, or providing his own reporting on whether the school Obama attended was, in fact, a madrassa, Bacon reported only that "Obama denied the rumor." CBSNews.com featured the Post article as the top story on its home page during the afternoon of November 29. Beneath a picture of Obama, the headline read "Obama Dogged By Muslim Rumors," with the accompanying text: "Washington Post: Foes Use Candidate's Muslim Ties To Fuel Speculation About His Faith."

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Further, while Bacon reported that Obama is "a member of a congregation of the United Church of Christ in Chicago," "has actively touted his Christianity" during his presidential campaign, and recently told an Iowa audience, "If I were a Muslim, I would let you know," the article never definitively stated that claims that Obama was once a Muslim have been discredited. Bacon later reported:

Another e-mail, on a site called Snopes.com that tracks Internet rumors, starts, "Be careful, be very careful." It notes that "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 writing that the email "notes that 'Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim,' " [emphasis added] Bacon implied that this allegation is true. In fact, as Daily Kos contributor BarbinMD pointed out, Snopes.com listed this email as an example of allegations that "Barack Obama is 'a radical, ideological Muslim,' " a smear that Snopes.com notes is "[f]alse." Indeed, as Media Matters for America noted, a March 25 Chicago Tribune article reported that "[i]nterviews with dozens of former classmates, teachers, neighbors and friends show that Obama was not a regular practicing Muslim when he was in Indonesia."

Additionally, Talking Points Memo reporter-blogger Greg Sargent noted that Bacon did not report "the substance of Obama's denial" until the 12th paragraph of the article:

It's dismal enough that WaPo's free acknowledgment that these are rumors didn't stop the paper's editors from running this garbage on its front page. What's even worse is the fact that it doesn't get around to explaining the substance of Obama's denial of these rumors until the 12th paragraph.

Incredibly, this denial comes after the piece tells readers that polls show that the public is hostile to electing someone who is Muslim to the Presidency. In other words, WaPo's editors thought that public hostility towards having a Muslim President is more important for readers to know about than the niggling details about whether the subject of these rumors on the paper's front page is actually Muslim or not.

Bacon also reported that "[c]onservative talk-show hosts have occasionally repeated the rumor, with Michael Savage noting Obama's 'background' in a 'Muslim madrassa in Indonesia' in June," [emphasis in original] but did not note, as Media Matters did when it documented Savage's June 26 comments, that his smear of Obama had been previously debunked by CNN, the AP, and ABC News.

A January 17 InsightMag.com article reported that "sources close to [a] background check" allegedly "conducted by researchers connected to" Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) had disclosed that Obama "spent at least four years in a so-called Madrassa or Muslim seminary, in Indonesia." The article, headlined "Hillary's team has questions about Obama's Muslim background," stated that "[s]ources said the background check ... disclosed details of Mr. Obama's Muslim past."

But on the January 22 edition of The Situation Room, CNN correspondent John Vause visited "Barack Obama's elementary school in Jakarta" and stated that he had "been to madrassas in Pakistan, and this school is nothing like that," as Media Matters noted. In an unbylined January 23 article, InsightMag.com responded: "Insight never -- not once -- in its article claims that Obama went to a Madrassa. We didn't claim it; Hillary's people did." (CNN did not report on the source of the smear.) The January 17 InsightMag.com article had asserted that "sources close" to a "background check" supposedly "conducted by researchers connected to Senator Clinton" said that "[t]he idea is to show Obama as deceptive" and speculated that the "predominantly" Muslim school that Obama has admitted he once attended might have taught "a Wahhabi doctrine that denies the rights of non-Muslims." InsightMag.com's January 23 response said the CNN report "does not satisfy our standards for aggressive investigative reporting."

Further, a January 20 New York Post article quoted Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson saying, "We have no connection to this story." The article also reported that Obama strategist David Axelrod said he did not "believe ... for a second" the allegation that Clinton's camp was behind the story. InsightMag.com referenced the denial from the Clinton camp after Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote in a January 22 post in his "Media Notes" online column that the original InsightMag.com story was a "flimsy charge from some magazine." The same day, InsightMag.com responded that its story "was not thinly sourced" and asserted that "[t]he Clinton camp's denial has as much credibility as the 'I never had sex with that woman' statement." InsightMag.com's January 23 posting did not address the comments by either Wolfson or Axelrod.

As Media Matters also noted, the Associated Press reported on January 24 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."

In addition, in a January 25 ABCNews.com article, ABC News chief political correspondent Jake Tapper reported that "[a]n ABC News producer and crew visited the school in Jakarta, Indonesia, attended by Sen. Barack Obama in his youth and found it to be a normal government public school without even a hint of the extremist elements reported by various conservative news outlets in the last week." Tapper also described "the notion that the Clinton campaign was investigating Obama's past" as a "charge that remains unproven and unsubstantiated."

Moreover, Obama attended that school for two years, according to his autobiography, after which he went to a Catholic school.

A January 24 Washington Post editorial asserted that InsightMag.com had "managed to further degrade the public discourse" by publishing the January 17 article, which the Post called a "scurrilous 'report,' " and noted that "the madrassa story was debunked by CNN and the Associated Press."

From the November 29 Post article, headlined "Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him":

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.

Since declaring his candidacy for president in February, Obama, a member of a congregation of the United Church of Christ in Chicago, has had to address assertions that he is a Muslim or that he had received training in Islam in Indonesia, where he lived from ages 6 to 10. While his father was an atheist and his mother did not practice religion, Obama's stepfather did occasionally attend services at a mosque there.

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.

In campaign appearances, Obama regularly mentions his time living and attending school in Indonesia, and the fact that his paternal grandfather, a Kenyan farmer, was a Muslim. Obama invokes these facts as part of his case that he is prepared to handle foreign policy, despite having been in the Senate for only three years, and that he would literally bring a new face to parts of the world where the United States is not popular.

[...]

Obama aides sharply disputed the initial stories suggesting that he was a Muslim, and in Iowa, the campaign keeps a letter at its offices, signed by five members of the local clergy, vouching for the candidate's Christian faith. Aware that his religious belief remains an issue, Obama has denied a separate charge: that he does not hold his hand to his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. This rumor stemmed from a photo that was taken while the national anthem was being played.

"If I were a Muslim, I would let you know, " he said in Dubuque, Iowa, recently, according to CNN.com. "But I'm a member of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. We've got the best choir in town, and if you want to come and worship with us, you are more than welcome."

In the past few months, Obama has actively touted his Christianity, particularly in South Carolina, where his campaign hosted a gospel tour to appeal to black voters. He describes his movement from a "reluctant skeptic" to a believer during his 20s while he was working with black churches in Chicago as a community organizer. The title of his second book, "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream," comes from a sermon by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ.

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.

Human Events, another conservative magazine, published on its Web site a package of articles called "Barack Obama Exposed." One of them was titled "The First Muslim President?"

Robert Spencer, a conservative activist, wrote in Human Events that "given Obama's politics, it will not be hard to present him internationally as someone who understands Islam and Muslims, and thus will be able to smooth over the hostility between the Islamic world and the West -- our first Muslim President."

Conservative talk-show hosts have occasionally repeated the rumor, with Michael Savage noting Obama's "background" in a "Muslim madrassa in Indonesia" in June, and Rush Limbaugh saying in September that he occasionally got "confused" between Obama and Osama bin Laden. Others repeatedly use the senator's middle name, Hussein.

The rumors about Obama have been echoed on Internet message boards and chain e-mails.

Bryan Keelin of Charleston, S.C., who works with an organization of churches there, posted on an Internet board his suspicion that Obama is a Muslim. "I assume his father instructed him on the ways of being a Muslim," said Keelin, who described himself in an interview as a conservative Republican who will vote for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

"The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the U.S. from the inside out," says one of the e-mails that was posted recently on a blog at BarackObama.com, the campaign's Web site, by an Obama supporter who warned of an attempt to "Swift Boat" the candidate. "What better way to start than at the highest level, through the President of the United States, one of their own!"

Another e-mail, on a site called Snopes.com that tracks Internet rumors, starts, "Be careful, be very careful." It notes that "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."

Network/Outlet
The Washington Post
Stories/Interests
Barack Obama, 2008 Elections
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