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Janensch on the Media: Fighting Political Rumors
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Media Commentator Paul JanenschMedia Commentator Paul JanenschThe campaign team working for Barack Obama has come up with a new way to fight damaging rumors about the Democratic candidate and his wife Michelle.  It’s an anti-rumor Web site.  Is the tactic smart?  Media commentator Paul Janensch gives us his assessment.

The Obama Web site is named fight-the-smears-dot-com.  Fightthesmears with an "s" at the end is all one word.  At one time, the political wisdom was never to respond to rumors that had not surfaced in the mass media – newspapers, magazines, radio and television networks.  The thinking was you would only draw attention to them.  But with the Internet, rumors can receive wide distribution through blogs and e-mail chain letters.  Then they get picked up by radio talk show hosts and cable news commentators.  

By this stage, the rumors may have done considerable damage.  Even if the rumors are finally knocked down in the traditional media, it may be too late.  Case in point: the Swift Boating of John Kerry in 2004.  By the time Kerry’s campaign brought forth eye-witnesses and Navy documents to verify that the Democratic nominee had earned his medals in Vietnam, his war-hero image had been tarnished.  In the 2000 Republican primary in South Carolina, John McCain, running against George W. Bush, was the victim of a rumor that he had fathered a black child out of wedlock.  The truth is that the McCains had adopted a dark-skinned girl from Bangladesh.  

The Obama Web site is intended to combat rumors before they become rooted in the public’s consciousness.  It presents a rumor, denounces it as a lie and provides what it says is the truth.  Photos and video clips are often included as evidence.  For example, the Web site says it’s a lie that a tape exists of Michelle Obama using the word “Whitey” from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.  According to the Web site, no such tape exists.  The Web site says, “Michelle Obama has not spoken from the pulpit at Trinity and has not used that word.”   What about the rumors that Obama is a Muslim and was sworn in as a senator from Illinois using the Koran?  Those are lies, says the Web site, and a photo shows Obama taking the oath with his hand on a Bible.  

The anti-rumor gambit is risky.  What if a “lie” on the Web site turns out to be true?  Or what if a “truth” turns out to be wrong?  That could be devastating.  But I can see why the Obama campaign thinks confronting rumors head-on without delay is worth the risk.  Just ask John Kerry or John McCain.

ANCHOR OUTRO Media commentator Paul Janensch is a former newspaper editor who teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.  You can read his column in the Connecticut Post of Bridgeport.