Debunking the rumor mill

Smears spread as rumors are an unfortunate but seemingly inevitable fact of life in political campaigns. And in the 21st century it’s also a fact of life that the Internet is the best way of knocking down those rumors and also the most effective way of spreading them.

Reporter Thomas Hargrove of Scripps Howard News Service and professor Guido Stempel of Ohio University set out to collect the three most egregious and common rumors about the two major candidates and then conduct a poll to find out how widely the smears had spread and what their likely influence might be.

The smears against John McCain were the "Manchurian Candidate" rumor that he had been brainwashed while a prisoner of war in Vietnam; that he is senile; and that he had fathered a black child.

The smears against Barack Obama were that he is secretly a Muslim; that he is the anti-Christ from the biblical Book of Revelation; and that he refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or display the American flag.

A startling 94 percent of adult Americans have heard one or more of the rumors. A more encouraging finding is that most believe the smears would have little or no effect on the vote, one-third thought they might have "some influence" and only 8 percent thought they would have "a great deal of influence" on other voters. Still, 8 percent is a lot in a tight race and both campaigns have had to spend time combating the rumors.

Barack Obama has it worse than McCain, probably because he is both a newcomer to national politics and, being half African American, a novelty as a major party presidential candidate. His campaign has fought back with a Web site called ""

McCain is more of a known quantity, but his political career has suffered from smears. In the critical 2000 South Carolina primary he was the victim of an orchestrated whispering campaign that he had been psychologically damaged in Vietnam and that he had fathered a black child. (His 17-year-old daughter Bridget was adopted as an infant from an orphanage in Bangladesh.)

The smears are unfair, but, as President John Kennedy observed, life is unfair and how effective a campaign is in knocking down the smears is not an unfair test of a candidacy.