Smear campaigns: then and now

In our current Age of the Internet, smear campaigns and falsities are easier dismantled—but quicker spread.

Take two case studies, for example. The first: Bill Clinton’s illegitimate son scandal in the 90s. The second: USDA’s Shirley Sherrod’s “racist” comments about a white farmer which proved to be false.

The Online Journalism review article “A Cybersleaze Timeline” shows how Clinton’s illegitimate son rumor was spread and sensationalized throughout a period of 7 years— from 1992 when the story first appeared in the tabloid “The Globe, to 1999, when Danny Williams (Clinton’s “son”) DNA test results came back, Clinton’s paternal test negative.

As the OJR article shows, this rumor was being pushed most strongly by Matt Drudge, founder of The Drudge Report. In his “breaking” of this story in 1999, Drudge’s “report” on the rumor (which was based off of a videotaped testimony of Danny William’s mother, Bobbie Ann revealing her and Clinton’s alleged relationship) included this line, which I found funny: “What becomes immediately obvious to the viewer watching the videotaped confession is that this is clearly not gossip, rumor or anonymous charges being maliciously directed at a politician,” wrote Drudge. The only thing “clear” was this was bad journalism being done—as revealed when the paternal test was released.

Fast-forward to 2010, and you have the case of Shirley Sherrod who actually was asked to resign from her position with the USDA after making “racist” remarks against a white farmer at a NAACP dinner. As this column “Shirley Sherrod: Anatomy of a Smear Campaign” written by George Curry demonstrates, this rumor was dispelled much quicker than the first case: it took the media only a few days to realize they’d been duped by blogger Andrew Breitbart, who’d edited the video of Sherrod’s speech together to make it look as though Sherrod had said something offensive, when in reality, the speech was about racial acceptance. In those two short days, however, damage was done: the NAACP released a statement against Sherrod, she was asked to resign from her post at the USDA and her character was questioned on many mainstream media outlets before the full tape was actually watched.

The similarities between both cases? It seems like the media doesn’t let fact checking (or, at least, waiting for verification of facts) get in the way of their reporting.

Mayhill Fowler and “Acting Independently”

A few weeks ago in my Independent Media class we discussed how one issue with bloggers is lack of credentials: some bloggers struggle with being blocked from, say, a closed city hall session because they aren’t defined as “press.”

However, there is also a flip-side: some ordinary citizens can gain access to places where the media is not allowed to go. We saw this in the 2008 election when a “citizen journalist” who worked for the Huffington Post’s “Off the Bus” coverage recorded Barack Obama’s comments about how “bitter” small-town Americans “cling to guns or religion.” The controversial statement was made in an event that was “closed” to the press; however, the blogger was allowed access because she was not a part of the mainstream press.

After reporting on the statement, mainstream news outlets picked up the story and it caused a lot of controversy—almost derailing Obama’s campaign. After releasing the story, the blogger, Mayhill Fowler, received hundreds of angry emails from Pro-Obama supporters, some including death threats, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. 

What is interesting about it is that Fowler was an Obama supporter—and remained an Obama supporter throughout the whole incident. Unlike the people accusing her via email of trying to smear Obama, Fowler had been actively transparent in admitting her support for him. Fowler even was hesitant to publish the story, she said, because she didn’t want to quote him out of context (which is why she made the decision to publish the whole transcript along with the article—one great advantage of online journalism is you can’t ever run out of column space.)

According to the Los Angeles Times article I linked to above, Fowler’s project manager Amanda Michel gave her this advice: “‘If you are going to be a journalist, you can’t favor one candidate over another.'” It’s advice straight out of the SPJ code of ethics: “Act Independently.” This case is also an example of how transparency shouldn’t effect journalists’ objectivity (see my last blog post about objectivity). If a political leader is being a hypocrite, that is exactly what the public needs to know, despite one’s political alignment, and Fowler is a good example of bias not getting in the way of objectivity. It’s what separates journalism from activism, and I think even though online independent media in some ways is merging those two, that distinction of challenging leaders and holding them accountable despite one’s advocacy for certain political or social issues is an important one to draw.

The news media’s facade of objectivity

Last week in my Independent Media class, we discussed how objectivity can be a barrier to journalism, especially in the mainstream media. The mainstream media claims objectivity, yet reports either in favor of the government, or—when critical or reporting on a political or human rights issue—tries to “balance” their viewpoint by talking to a representative from both the democrat and republican parties; these sources, however, never deviating too-far from the middle.

My professor, Jeff Cohen, brought up this idea of “centrism” that exists within the mainstream media, and how that in itself if appealing to a political ideology since your bias is centrism. But the mainstream media doesn’t admit this bias; they have to claim to be objective, even when it’s clear they are not—possibly why Fox News’ slogan is “Fair and Balanced” despite the fact that they and all of their readers and viewers know that they are a very conservative news outlet.

I understand why the news media tries to create objectivity in reporting: after all, the intent of journalism is to inform the public on the facts about the goings-on in the current world. Interjecting opinion editorializes those facts and creates a narrative of the story that may skew the public’s perception in favor of a certain agenda. However, playing devil’s advocate to that argument, any time one recounts a story, what they choose to omit and add to the story already is manipulating the actual events of a story, even if their words are as un-biased as possible, since it is theoretically impossible to include every single fact of what occurred with the same amount of balance—and the question of that being a story which a reader would actually be interested in and fully absorb complicates the argument further.

So why claim objectivity at all? I think that, as is becoming more and more prevalent with the increase in online independent media outlets, if the media outlet or reporter was to state their bias right up-front, the reader could understand the angle at which the story was reported and how that might effect the reporting. Transparency, as blogger David Weinberger writes in his blog post “Transparency is the new objectivity,” seems to be a more honest means of reporting versus claiming objectivity when it is clear that everything is written with a type of bias. One way that transparency is enhanced by the internet is in the form of links, since never before has a reader had such an immediate way of fact-checking the reporter’s statements. I think that through independent media and online media outlets, this trend towards transparency and admitting bias will both account for more honest journalism, and hold journalists and media outlets more accountable.