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Fears for smears

— Contrary to Jon Stewart's lampooning of the media for giving credulous treatment to ridiculous smears of Barack Obama, my experience in mainstream media is that the folks who produce the news are generally wary of giving attention to unsubstantiated mud flinging.

The example that stands out most clearly in my mind is from early in the 2004 presidential campaign when Matt Drudge was pushing the story of John Kerry having a fling with an intern. It was a huge open secret. Everyone knew of the story but no one (no one in the circles I have access to) wanted to touch it. (The best account of the story is by the intern herself who got a sort of journalistic revenge by writing about her experience in New York Magazine.)

Markos Moulitsas wrote in his Daily Kos blog at the time, "Ugh. Here's a story I don't want to touch, if there ever was one. But it's fast becoming an issue, so it can't be ignored." But to my recollection mainstream media did largely ignore it. Before I digress - because obviously Jon Stewart was able to put his segment together, so there's no real defense of how the media treats unsubstantiated rumors - the point I'm aiming for is that ignoring these things was the standard way to deal with them. So last week's launch of Barack Obama's Fight the Smears site has me wondering if the changed times require new measures or if the Obama campaign is going to publicly learn the lesson that made the rule.

The reason I care at all is that I had written up a lot of notes on the "whitey tape" smear - a story that there exists a tape of an interview with Michelle Obama in which she refers to white people as "whitey." It was a classic case of a story with a huge life on the blogs and no mainstream daylight, so I gathered links and tried to figure out whether it was rooted in the GOP, the Hillary Clinton camp or just Obama bashers (or some weird amalgam of the three).

But recalling the Kerry intern story, I canned the whole thing. Writing about it would give it legitimacy even if I ultimately concluded that it was a bogus story. And while it's as foolish to think that by not writing about it I was somehow suppressing the story as it is to think that by writing about it I'd be broadcasting it to the public consciousness, in trying to do the right thing I went with the "ignore" heuristic.

Then Obama introduced Fight the Smears and the very first item on the list is the "whitey tape" story.

I'm still going to ignore the "whitey tape" story but now I'm wondering if I'm being quaint and old fashioned in doing so.

This week some guy is trying to stir up publicity for his claim that he did drugs and had sex with Barack Obama. The fact that the National Press Club agreed to rent space to the guy for his press conference has created a stir (complete with petition) among media watchdog blogs thus bringing it onto the Clicked radar.

My journalistic sense is that this guy sounds crazy and I should ignore the whole thing rather than give it energy through any further coverage. Does the fact that the Obama campaign seems to think that if the media won't refute scurrilous smears they'll have to do it themselves mean that my journalistic sense is actually a dereliction?

(Not that it does McCain any favors but I should point out that he too is the victim of online smears. The most famous right now is a viral video accusing him of calling his wife the "C word." Like Obama's "whitey tape" no one has any actual evidence, but unlike Obama, McCain has deliberately not dignified it with a comment, even when asked about it directly at  voter town hall Q&A.)