Mainstream media not jumping on the political rumor bandwagon

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Call me quaint and old-fashioned, but I give most of the mainstream media a hearty pat on the back for refusing to spread the inflammatory and thoroughly unsubstantiated rumor that Michelle Obama once railed against “whitey” from a pulpit.

Fervent e-mails and blogs have buzzed since late May with “news” that a videotape would emerge of Barack Obama’s wife spewing the racial epithet. The claim propped up a fantastical caricature -- the mother, lawyer, Ivy League graduate and potential first lady as a seething member of the hate-American-first club.

Both the media and Obama’s presidential campaign faced the unenviable question of whether to ignore the rumor or address it head-on. Most news outlets and the campaign chose not to dignify the “whitey” claims with a response. But that changed Thursday, when the Obama camp issued a flat denial and also launched a website ( designed to “push back on false and divisive attacks.”

The know-nothing caucus, with its substantial outpost on the blogosphere, likes to depict traditional news outlets as uniformly careless and unprincipled. But most newsrooms treated the “whitey” rumor with admirable caution.

Some journalists argued that the canard had gained such wide Internet currency that mainstream news organizations had an obligation to try to confirm or refute it.

But for every Web-crawling reader already fully immersed in the controversy, newspapers, radio and television stations avoided spreading the stink bomb to others who still rely on the mainstream media for their news.

“And you don’t want to give oxygen and life to those things that are living in some niche in the blogosphere,” said Tim Curran, political editor for the Washington Post. “Even by writing about it not being true, you would give life to it.”

That standard didn’t hold everywhere, though.

Blogger Larry Johnson apparently launched the rumor of a whitey “rant” on May 26. A few days later, Johnson promised an update. Only one thing remained absent -- proof. That didn’t stop talk-radio gasbag Rush Limbaugh from reporting rumors of a tape of Michelle Obama ragging “whitey” from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ.

Then the ever-cartoonish Geraldo Rivera had it both ways on Fox television, letting Republican activist Roger Stone talk up the “whitey” video before Rivera added dismissively: “I’ll give you 100 bucks if it’s true.”

“Whitey” crept toward more general circulation on June 5, when a newspaper reporter flying aboard Obama’s plane asked about it. The Illinois senator responded sharply that reporters should hesitate to even ask about such “dirt and lies.”

The rumor mostly stayed out of the news, although Politico blogger Ben Smith sought a middle ground, writing about Obama’s response, while Smith alluded only to “a derogatory term for white people.”

“If the mainstream media ignores a rumor, the rumor is the first hit on Google,” Smith said Thursday in an e-mail. “If it’s addressed or debunked, the debunking is usually the first thing.”

NBC Political Director Chuck Todd called Obama’s rumor-thwarting website a “sea change” in campaign history. “I think we are going to come to the point where we owe it to the viewers to tell them what is not true,” Todd said. “It used to be we just used to have to tell them what was true.”

The Los Angeles Times demonstrated the continuing ambivalence about the issue in its Wednesday editions. A front-page story referred only to “divisive comments allegedly made by Michelle Obama,” while in the Calendar section, Web columnist David Sarno described the suspect provenance of “whitey.”

Sarno said the rumor had become public enough that it seemed worth explaining, both how it metastasized and failed to gain any credibility. “There’s an almost mythical element to these things,” he said, “that I wanted to explain.”

Just a week after Obama tweaked a reporter for rumor-mongering, his campaign shifted gears Thursday. “At a certain point, you have to take these rumors on directly,” said spokesman Bill Burton, “and arm your supporters with the facts to knock them down.”

New York Times Political Editor Richard W. Stevenson and others predicted that such claims -- “one of the trickiest issues that we as journalists are facing in this election cycle” -- will continue to light up the Internet.

Indeed, the Obama camp moved quickly to stamp out another myth Thursday, shipping a copy of the candidate’s Hawaiian birth certificate to the website. That came in response to an Internet provocateur who implied that Obama had been born overseas, making him ineligible for the presidency.

The strategy for dealing with such Web snipery is not going to get any more obvious. But it seems most honorable to avoid dignifying cyber-snark, unless the infection spreads to the mainstream.