Jon Stewart recently named a syndrome more serious than our current fear of produce, spread not by salmonella but through both cable news and the internet: Baracknophobia. Stewart jokingly defined it as "the irrational fear of hope, the sickness which manifests itself mostly through rumor, often in the form of the only e-mail your grandmother has ever been able to successfully forward."
Though Stewart is inclined to add cheeky allusions to your grandmother's role as a pundit, the remarks go beyond mere farce, signaling an issue, if not a "phobia," in 2008 presidential politics. Unfamiliarity with Barack Obama has birthed various rumors, with some stating he was taught in a Madrassa (an Islamic religious school), sworn in to Congress on the Koran, or that he's secretly a Muslim attempting to become the real-life Manchurian candidate.
Between November 2007 and March 2008, a poll conducted by The Washington Post showed that the number of voters who mistakenly believed Obama to be a Muslim rose from 8 percent to 13 percent. Since becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee, the smears are stronger than ever.
Sid Bedingfield, former head of CNN's U.S. network and visiting professor at the University of South Carolina, thinks it is because Obama doesn't have an established reputation with most Americans, putting voter perception up for grabs.
"There has not been a nominee since Jimmy Carter who has spent less time in the public eye," he says. "For that reason, one of the clearest ways to prevent Obama from winning is to define him before he is able to define himself."
Stewart indicted the media for spreading Baracknophobia, but Bedingfield disagrees. "When the Madrassa story first broke last fall, it was just an unsubstantiated talk-radio claim," he says. "CNN went to the school in Indonesia where Obama attended and reported that it was not, in fact, a Madrassa and Barack did not get a Muslim education there."
Bedingfield's dilemma, like other journalists, was finding a middle ground when reporting the smears: how to do the public a service by addressing the issue and reporting the news, but not giving the smear more notoriety. "The media would only be entirely responsible if these rumors reached a point of public defamation and the media still reported on them as accurate rather than spending the time reporting their falsity."
Richard Todd, host of WTMA 1250's talk radio show The Morning Buzz, says he received calls asking about smears on a daily basis during the primary season and disparaged them without hesitation.
"If you are armed with the facts, it tends to blow their preconceived notions out of the water," he says. "You can almost smell the smoke coming through the phone. The wheels are spinning so fast in their brain because they're trying to comprehend the facts when they completely contradict their preconceived notions."
The only people susceptible to the smears are Americans who already have deep doubts and misgivings about the candidate, Bedingfield says.
This demographic becomes more troublesome when the rumor plays into a larger negative narrative about the candidate: John Kerry's turn against swift boat veterans played into the charge of being a "flip-flopper," an allegation that led to his defeat four years ago.
"Obama can't go into this election with people questioning his background or he may suffer the same fate," Bedingfield says.
However, the attacks on Obama have evolved since those made against Kerry. With the growing technical efficiency of anonymous e-mails sent to thousands at the click of a button, the impact of internet-based smears represents a new challenge.
Obama's tactic was clear in the past — too outraged to dignify mistruths with a response, he silently ignored the smears. But recently he has shifted to direct confrontation to try and subdue the persistent smears, similar to what Bill Clinton did in the '92 election.
Though Obama has only recently changed his tactics to be more aggressive, Todd has always tried to convince his listeners of the truth. "I like to blow the smears out of the water. You can sometimes hear people literally change their mind on the air."
It is no coincidence the campaign's decision to change gears comes almost directly after Obama decided to speak out against his long time pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, after he said 9/11 was caused by Jewish people and the U.S. government was behind the creation of HIV.
"I think the campaign realized they needed to make a clean break from Wright. They could no longer assume that people were just going to ignore this or anything like it. They needed to be more proactive in getting out there and making sure they had their say in the issues," Bedingfield says.
South Carolinians were fooled by whisper tactics in the 2000 primary, leading to Bush's win over McCain. The Bush campaign allegedly employed political consultants to use push polls.
Last-minute calls to voters asked whether they'd "be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child." South Carolina voters did not dismiss this narrative as farfetched because McCain had been traveling the state with his dark-skinned daughter Bridget, who was adopted from an orphanage in Bangladesh. Not surprisingly, this rumor helped erode support for McCain in South Carolina.
Though this incident was fixed in the heart of the South, Bedingfield says any part of the country could have fallen for the same tactics. "I would not talk about the South being more susceptible than parts of Ohio, parts of Michigan, parts of Wisconsin, and large parts of the North. Across the country, we are more alike than sometimes we want to believe."
Shortly after losing the 2000 primary, McCain said in an interview that there must be a "special place in hell" held only for the rumormongers. Now, these rumormongers will likely be focused on disparaging Obama in hopes of shifting broader support to McCain.
The Obama campaign recently created www.fightthesmears.com to make sure the same tactics won't work this time around. The website is aimed at combating smears with the campaign's own easy-to-e-mail answers effectively disproving them as false.
After Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, an Obama supporter, told CBS's Face the Nation that he "didn't think (McCain's) riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president," McCain unleashed a "truth squad" of his own. It was similar to the South Carolina truth squad he used sporadically during the 2008 primary season to combat potential attacks like the ones in the 2000 race.
The truth squad's response to Clark's comments was low-tech compared to Obama's website. McCain's defense was a simple conference call to reporters from prominent senators, judges, and admirals who spent less time defending McCain than they did trying to tie Clark's comments to Obama — even though the Democratic candidate rejected Clark's remarks and defended McCain's military record.
Fascinating conspiracy theories are fun water cooler talk, regardless of the candidate being disparaged, but the hope is that through these websites and truth squads, smears won't decide the next president. You will.
"I like to blow the smears out of the water; you can sometimes hear people literally change their mind on the air."
—Richard Todd, host of WTMA 1250's talk radio show The Morning Buzz