How's that "Citizen Journalism" Thing Working Out?


Lynn Sweet, one of the toughest reporters of the Obama campaign, writes on how it handled her requests for details on the "whitey tape" rumor.

When I phoned the Obama press shop a few times in recent weeks to check out rumors about whether there was a videotape with Michelle Obama using the word "whitey," the campaign declined to issue a denial or to pass along the question to Michelle's staff to find out what might be fueling the rumors… Talking a week ago, Obama gave a frosty answer to McClatchy Newspapers reporter Margaret Talev, who asked about rumors concerning his wife.

"There is dirt and lies that are circulated in e-mail," he said. "And they pump them out long enough until finally you, a mainstream reporter, asks me about them. And then that gives legs to the story."

"He was visibly angry at being asked to dignify the rumor by denying it—and so was his staff," said Talev, writing in her blog.

Note that Obama never simply said it was not true; he was concerned, as he said, that if he did, he would create a story. But the exchange got Obama to thinking it was time to shift tactics.

If you hear that Michelle Obama gave a 'whitey' rant from, of all places, the Trinity United Church of Christ—the church the Obamas quit recently following controversies with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the Rev. Michael Pfleger—don't believe it.

"No such tape exists. Michelle Obama has not spoken from the pulpit at Trinity and has not used that word," the campaign said on the site.

So reports the woman who called Obama "disingenuous," to his face, for the handling of Austan Goolsbee's talks with Canada about NAFTA. What say the bloggers who fell for the rumor? Let's try A.J. Stratra.

A Time story… proved Obama's campaign knew about the video rumor before it showed up on Hillary supporter Larry Johnson's site.  Not a good turn of events, because it supported some of the claims being made by Johnson and others that the Obama campaign knew about the video (as opposed to knew about the rumor of a video).

Wait… what did the Time story say?

When the Obama campaign got wind of the rumor in April, Michelle's close friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett asked Michelle if there could be anything to it; the candidate's wife dismissed it out of hand. But by mid-May, it was picking up steam on the Internet, and Michelle's advisers decided it was time to have a serious talk with her about it. On a campaign swing through Oregon, Michelle's chief of staff Melissa Winter grilled her on the particulars of the various versions. Had she ever spoken at Trinity Church? Could she ever recall having uttering that racial epithet? No, no, Michelle answered again and again.

The campaign knew about the rumor before Johnson did, then—several people in Democratic circles did, because that's where the rumor apparently started, as a way of keeping superdelegates from endorsing Obama. But that's all they got word of: the rumor. They didn't "know about the video" because the video doesn't exist, as evidenced by the multiple versions of the "transcript" and alleged locations that floated around the web, none of which had any corroborating evidence. More Strata:

In addition, the Obama site confirmed Michelle Obama's presence on at a roundtable and plenary at the event—meaning they confirmed another part of the rumor, thus giving it more credibility to all of it. 

No, they confirmed the fact that fed the umpteenth version of the rumor, after NoQuarter found a photo of Michelle Obama at a 2004 Rainbow/PUSH event with Louis Farrakhan's wife. Mysteriously, right after that photo circulated, the rumor changed, and instead of Obama "speaking at Trinity" with Louis Farrakhan in frame and references to Hurricane Katrina, it became Obama at this event ranting about Bill Clinton. (The irony is that if this photo wasn't found in service of the sexier rumor, it might have become a story on its own.)

I bring this up because I find Strata's tone, a stand-in for the tone of a lot of blogs that believed this garbage, dim and farcical. This whole episode has been a hammer blow to the idea of "citizen journalism," as bloggers with agendas and no idea of how to do reporting or corroboration spread a rumor using the tropes of reporting. I bring it up, too, because I think we've reached a tipping point where the sympathy for Obama over this stuff is outstripping the damage from the rumors. Chiefly, that's because the rest of the media (who don't enjoy wasting time chasing b.s. rumors) have got Obama's back on this, covering him in a friendly way they haven't managed since his February run of primary wins.

This was always a danger with the Obama rumor industry. A large part of McCain's legend, and his support in the media, was the belief that the 2000 nomination was robbed from him with lies and dirty tricks. As late as 2005, I read a Vanity Fair piece exorcising the ghosts of that campaign, the publisher's ink mixed with tears for what Americans had lost. This year, how much momentum did McCain get from the New York Times story about his friendly (hint, hint) relations with lobbyists? A lot of momentum, because of that narrative that Hero John McCain was ever beset with such smears. At this point, every dumb rumor about Obama is feeding the narrative that he, too, is being dragged down by liars. What happens what there's a factual story about him or Michelle doing wrong? It'll get swallowed in the narrative.