The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz has weighed in on the controversy over his paper’s front-page story last week which gave space to false rumors that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Writes Mr. Kurtz, in a WashingtonPost.com chat:
It’s always a subject of journalistic debate as to when a rumor or smear has gained enough currency that a newspaper should weigh in and debunk it, even at the risk of spreading the original trash. I had debates in this newsroom many times about wanting to knock down some of the Clinton scandal rumors that were gaining currency in tabloids or British papers, and that was before the Internet was the force that it is today.
Post editors say they were trying to knock down the Obama-is-a-Muslim rumor, but I don’t believe the piece was well executed. It didn’t read like a debunking piece. There was too much about Obama “denying” or “disputing” allegations rather than just branding them false. This was particularly true in the case of the madrassa he allegedly attended as a child. That charge is bogus, as a CNN interview with a top official at the Indonesian school demonstrated, and the Post story failed to make that clear, in my view.
In general, Mr. Kurtz has been relatively unwilling to explicitly criticize mainstream news reporting, particularly that which appears in his own paper, so even this somewhat mild verdict is noteworthy. Post ombudsman Deborah Howell has said she intends to weigh in on the Obama story too.