Monday, January 29, 2007

The Mud Is Beginning to Fly


I got my real first taste of political dirty deeds some years back when, as a young editor, I was directing the coverage of a Los Angeles city council campaign.

One candidate, for reasons that weren't entirely clear, decided that her opponent had planted a spy in her camp.

So she fired off a letter to the city attorney's office accusing her opponent of stealing campaign secrets.

Then she demanded the media write a story that her opponent was "under investigation" by the city attorney's office for ethical misconduct.

Since asking for an investigation doesn't constitute the existence of one, we declined. It was clear she was trying to use the media to smear her opponent by portraying him as some morally compromised KGB agent.

It was minor stuff at a minor level. But it's a game played with varying degrees of success at the highest levels.

Consider: It didn't take long for the smear-mongers to take dead aim at prospective presidential candidate Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois.

Just this past week, Insight, a magazine owned by the conservative Washington Times, raised the specter that Obama is actually a Muslim. Maybe even a radical one.

Playing a skewed game of connect the dots, the article said that the young Barack attanded a mandrassah, or Muslim religious school, in Indonesia where he lived with his stepfather and mother. He was 6 at the time and had attended Catholic school for two years.

The implication is that Barack was schooled in Islamic radicalism while attending that school even though there is no evidence that terrorism or anything like it was part of the curriculum some 40 years ago.

I guess what we're suppose to read between the lines is that Obama, if elected president, will deliver the country lock, stock and oil barrel over to Islamic jihadists who will convert our churches to mosques, veil our women, toss our liquor into the Pacific Ocean and pack the halls of Congress with radical clerics.

But if that kind of political mud isn't bad enough, some members of the media had a large hand in slinging it. The boys over at Fox News picked up this nonsense on several of their programs and played up an angle in the magazine story that unnamed researchers "connected" to Hillary Clinton were spreading this information about her potential rival.

By doing so, Fox performed the difficult double smear move almost flawlessly: First cover Obama with mud, then blame it on Clinton.

As Howard Kurtz reported in the Washington Post, "in the first media controversy of the 2008 campaign, two of the leading candidates find themselves forced to respond to allegations lacking a single named source.

For their part, Obama's office said that "the idea that Senator Barack Obama attended some radical Islamic school is completely ludicrous. Senator Obama is a committed Christian and attends the United Church of Christ in Chicago."

Clinton's people called it "an obvious right-wing hit job by a Moonie publication that was designed to attack Senator Clinton and Senator Obama at the same time." Insight, like the Washington Times, is owned by a company controlled by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

In the meantime, the newly declared Clinton has other media matters on her mind. The New York Times, a paper that can only be described as friendly toward her, has already declared that she "has to combat her image...of being radically liberal, ruthlessly ambitious, or ethically compromised."

And to think election day is still almost two years away.

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