It was a lousy story. I panned it myself, because Bacon quoted Robert Spencer out of context in a way that made Spencer’s quote appear to mean the opposite of what it actually meant. That’s just plain dishonest, or evidence of incompetence. I also panned it because its thrust was wrong: It should have been about whether or not the Clinton campaign was trotting that rumor out to damage Obama, not whether or not the rumor itself is true, since it was debunked nearly a year ago. The evidence to hand, including the possibly coincidental Robert Novak column alleging that the Clintonistas were out claiming to be in possession of an Obama skeleton that they were helping him keep out of the streets, that hit around the time Bacon started sniffing around the old Obama Muslim rumor mill, suggested that this rumor might in fact be that skeleton. But that wasn’t the angle that Bacon’s story took. His story tried to run down the rumor itself, and smear conservatives like Robert Spencer in the process even though Spencer had debunked the rumor 8 months before Bacon’s report. Shoddy stuff.
Well, it seems that Bacon’s story didn’t please anyone, right, left or the party of journalists.
The Washington Post is accustomed to criticism of its coverage from the right and left blogospheres, but a Nov. 29 front page story about Barack Obama’s rumored Muslim ties came with a twist: Many voices within its own newsroom joined in the firestorm.
Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles lampooned it on the editorial page last Friday, and media critic Howard Kurtz wrote Monday that he didn’t “believe the piece was well executed.” This Sunday, Deborah Howell will weigh in with her ombudsman column.
Assistant Managing Editor Bill Hamilton, who oversees political coverage and edited the article, said that he was “a little puzzled” that readers didn’t see that the paper’s intention was to call into question rumors that Obama is secretly a Muslim (rather than a Christian), and was educated in an Indonesian madrassa.
“I’m sorry it was misunderstood,” Hamilton said. “It obviously makes me think about how I edited it.”
Well, it ought to. The real story wasn’t the rumor itself, since that had been knocked down to the extent that you can knock down a story about what someone believes. The story ought to have been why the rumor was coming back up as a topic at all. Why, after all these months, did Bacon start tracking the rumor down? What prompted him to do that? I’m not sure I buy the stated reason that the Post ran the piece.
Indeed, Hamilton said that the story originated in the past few weeks, following discussions with political reporters who noted how a small segment of the public—despite evidence to the contrary—believed that Obama was Muslim, or at least had a Muslim education. Executive editor Len Downie liked the finished story enough for it get front page treatment, according to Hamilton.
I still question the timing. If there were any Clinton fingerprints on the rumor’s resurgence, that ought to have been the story. Because Bacon botched the report in any regard, the WaPo is getting accused of “swiftboating,” which is itself an erroneous charge since the Swifties’ charges were true and the Obama rumor isn’t.
Since Thursday, there have been angry e-mails, Hamilton said, and allegations that the Post is swift-boating the Illinois senator by discussing rumors at length, without mentioning whether they’ve been thoroughly discredited by other media.
In a web piece titled “Is Perry Bacon Serious?”, Columbia Journalism Review’s Paul McLeary wrote that the Post’s A1 story “may be the single worst campaign ‘08 piece to appear in any American newspaper so far this election cycle.”
I doubt it’s the worst campaign ’08 piece to hit any American newspaper; Robin Givhan probably owns that distinction by reporting about Hillary Clinton’s cleavage. Of course, Givhan also works for the Post.
Nevertheless, Bacon’s was a lousy story, so I’ll take some solace that the Post is getting hammered for it. Even if those doing the hammering also have elements of the story wrong.