Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Gentlemen (and that includes the lady), mix your mud. Don’t forget to stir in a few bits of glass, sticks, sharp stones and anything else that looks lethal. The three big-dog Democrats have finally admitted, officially, what everybody already knows.

They’re off and wallowing.

Hillary Clinton was the last of the three in, following Barack Obama by a day or two, who followed John Edwards by a week or two. In presidential campaigns past, the candidates started only a year out, but now presidential campaigns never really end, spreading heat but little light. The more information we get, the less we know, because a lot of the facts are merely manufactured. Factoids rule — a “factoid” being the playful invention of novelist Norman Mailer, who defined a “factoid” as something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but in fact is not a fact.

Factoids are the gross natural product of what now passes for journalism in America, journalism driven not by newspapers, with their rigid insistence on confirming a claim or allegation before putting it in print, or even by radio or cable television with their less rigorous standards, but by the “citizen journalists” of the Internet who work down to the standard of beauty-shop gossips. Anybody with a computer and a keyboard can be a “citizen journalist,” who may or may not be a “citizen” but who is rarely an actual “journalist.” What makes “citizen journalism” work is sensation, imagination and speed. There are no tough old city editors in citizen journalism, eager to pounce on a sloppy reporter or careless columnist with questions to ruin a good story. A “citizen journalist” hears something by someone he may or may not know, embroiders it and sprays it into the ether where other “citizen journalists” pick it up and send it on. If it’s really juicy, talk radio and cable news, with their insatiable maw for material, will give it even longer legs. Occasionally such stuff might even be true. “We don’t have to worry about getting it right,” the editor of an Internet journal once told me. “The Internet is self-correcting.” (Tell that to someone who has been subjected to an Internet campaign of anonymous calumny and gratuitous slander.)

Hillary and Obama started sniping at each other at once, each accusing the other of “lack of experience” or of being insufficiently offended by the war in Iraq. But this was thin soup for an opening night. The stakes demanded something sensational.

Then a lurid account of Obama’s schoolboy days appeared in an Internet journal, detailing how young Obama, the son of a Muslim father and an atheist mother, became a Muslim in a radical Islamic school in Indonesia. Here was sensation suggesting that Barack Hussein Obama was this season’s Manchurian candidate, programmed by sinister agents abroad to explode once he became the first Muslim president of the United States.

“Are the American people ready for an elected president who was educated in a Madrassa as a young boy and has not been forthcoming about his Muslim heritage?” asked Insight, the Internet magazine. “This is the question Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s camp is asking about Sen. Barack Obama.”

Wicked stuff, but was it true? Insight, which is owned by the owners of The Washington Times but is absolutely, positively and entirely separate from the newspaper, was denounced by the handlers of both Hillary and Obama. “Trash,” said a spokesman for Obama. “A right-wing hit job,” said a spokesman for Hillary.

Neither this newspaper nor most others took up the story, which cited no named sources. Talk radio and cable television went for it, figuring that, well, Obama wrote in his 1995 biography that he did in fact attend “a predominantly Muslim school” in Indonesia, and spreading malicious gossip was exactly what everybody expects a Clinton campaign to do. Or maybe Obama himself was behind such a “leak,” to get the story out where his spinmeisters can cut off the story’s legs now, while there’s time and opportunity.

The ubiquitous public-opinion polls seem to indicate a cooling of Obama fever, anyway. The latest ABC News-Washington Post poll shows Hillary with a 41 percent to 17 percent lead over the man from Illinois. But there’s lots of mud to come, and some of it will be thrown at Hillary. She can count on it. Listener, beware.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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