Fanning the flames of misinformation

It is a problem long recognized but rarely admitted: We in the news media too often end up fanning the flames when we cover the fires.

But our craft’s dilemma becomes far worse when the fires we cover were set by arsonists in our midst.

And that is what happened this week. Just days after the consensus presidential frontrunners got off to their way-too-early start of campaign 2008, a small but ever-ready segment of the news media sparked the first brushfire so quickly that even the traditional political dirty tricksters got caught with their matches down.

A little-known conservative publication, Insight Magazine, which is owned by a company controlled by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, which also owns The Washington Times, put on its Web site an item that it presented as truth, even though it was an unverified, and ultimately untrue, non-fact. Insight Magazine reported that Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, during in his childhood in Indonesia, had been educated at a madrassa, one of those highly religious schools at which fundamentalist Islamic teachings stress militancy and hatred — schools that have produced many Islamic extremists.

“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?” the Insight article began. “This is the question Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s camp is asking about Sen. Barack Obama.” (Today, Obama worships at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side.) Citing anonymous sources, Insight claimed the information had been discovered by researchers “connected to Senator Clinton,” referring to Obama’s chief Democratic campaign rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson quickly denied the Insight report.

Obama wrote in his 1995 autobiography that when he and his mother moved to Jakarta to live with his new stepfather he attended Catholic schools for two years, then went to a “predominantly Muslim school” — which is far different from a madrassa.

Insight’s incendiary but unconfirmed report might have gone unnoticed except for some quick flame-fanning (see also: kerosene-dousing) by two much better known media outlets, the Fox News Channel and the New York Post, both owned by the politically conservative Rupert Murdoch. Anchors for two Fox News programs discussed the Insight report on the air. And the tabloid Post headlined Insight’s allegation: ” ‘OSAMA’ MUD FLIES AT OBAMA.”

Both Murdoch organizations spread Insight’s claim to their millions of viewers and readers without bothering to verify whether the school Obama attended in Indonesia, when he was 6 to 10 years-old, was a madrassa.

Interestingly, The Washington Times’ editor Wesley Pruden took the opposite tack. His newspaper, like most others, didn’t print a word of Insight’s claim and Pruden later wrote in a column saying that although his newspaper and Insight have the same owner, The Washington Times “is absolutely, positively and entirely separate from the newspaper.”

Most in the nation’s capital learned of the controversy Monday in a piece by The Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz. The Kurtz piece detailed the political leanings and journalistic shortcomings of the news organizations; but Kurtz didn’t independently ascertain whether Obama’s old elementary school was indeed a madrassa.

And that was crucial because CNN ultimately did some basic reporting and discovered the school was not a madrassa at all. You will not be surprised to know that Wolf Blitzer was not shy about letting you know in his introduction which news organization deserves the gold star: “CNN did what any serious news organization should do in a case like this. We conducted a first-hand investigation and we went right to Indonesia to check out the school that Obama attended as a little boy.”

CNN correspondent John Vause reported the school in question, Besuki Elementary in Jakarta, founded by the Dutch in 1934, is a public school with a broad secular curriculum. Most students are Muslim and once a week students go to their own religious classes: the Muslims are taught about their religion, Christians learn the teachings of Jesus, and so on. Vause interviewed school officials and one of Obama’s old grade school chums. He concluded Obama’s elementary school in Jakarta was “nothing like” those Islamic madrassas “that teach violence and hate in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

While CNN’s correspondent went to the scene, any reporter in the USA could have applied Journalism 101 basics by merely telephoning the school officials in Jakarta — and quickly gathered a few basic facts that would have debunked the bunk.

Then there would have been no “story” to report — and no flames to fan.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)