Obama Campaign Opens Anti-Smear Web Site
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The Internet has been Barack Obama's greatest strength and perhaps his greatest weakness. First, he's used it to mobilize young voters and generate record donations. But the Internet has also been home to viral campaigns attacking him.
Now as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the Obama camp is turning to the Internet to fight back against the Internet.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: It should be a scandal. A new Web site set up by a prominent politician is trafficking in devastating claims against Democratic candidate Barack Obama, claims that Obama lashed out against whites in his book, that he won't say the Pledge of a Allegiance, that his wife, Michelle, used the word whitey in public. The politician behind the site: Barack Obama. To figure out why, just listen to him chastising a reporter on his campaign plane last week for asking whether there was such a tape of Michelle Obama saying the word whitey.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): There is dirt and lies that are circulated in e-mail and they pump them out long enough until finally you, a mainstream reporter, asks me about them. And then that gives legs to the story.
FOLKENFLIK: So a few short days later the candidate himself has a site about those rumors and others. Fightthesmears.com. It uses video clips to rebut allegations from hostile radio talk show hosts and bloggers and e-mail campaigns. Obama tried to laugh that off during a talk to the pro-Israel public interest group AIPAC.
Sen. OBAMA: They're filled with tall tales and dire warnings about a certain candidate for president, and all I want to say is let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama because he sounds pretty scary.
FOLKENFLIK: Pretty scary for Democrats who recall failed presidential campaigns that ran aground. First on the Willie Horton ads - that would be Michael Dukakis; the merciless jokes about Al Gore's inventing the Internet; and well, you remember how much the Swift Vote Veterans for Truth liked John Kerry.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Man #1: John Kerry is no war hero.
Unidentified Man #2: He betrayed all his shipmates. He lied before the Senate.
FOLKENFLIK: Micah Sifry is a co-founder of TechPresident.com, a blog looking at how leading candidates are using the Web.
Mr. MICAH SIFRY (TechPresident.com): This is different from four years ago when faced with a similar kind of problem the Kerry campaign laid back, and it didn't help them, it hurt them. So you know, I think the Obama people have taken a lesson from that.
FOLKENFLIK: Sifry's particularly taken with the site's spread the word link.
Mr. SIFRY: You can't control your message entirely anymore but you can give your supporters lots of rich content to work with online.
FOLKENFLIK: The site also accommodates another one word reality, says sociologist Christine Shiwietz, who created a consulting group called International Reputation Management. That word, she says, is Google.
Ms. CHRISTINE SCHIWIETZ (International Reputation Management): Politicians, they need to own their first page of Google results with supportive sites, because people do not look beyond the first or second page.
FOLKENFLIK: Shiwietz's company does that by helping create positive content through sympathetic stories or their own Web pages. And Shiwietz says the Obama camp is following her formula.
Ms. SHIWIETZ: The people really want to see the rumors. The key is to make those disappear further down in the Google result pages.
FOLKENFLIK: That development has forced candidates to reconsider the conventional wisdom about how to handle damaging rumors. Michael Daubs writes the fact checker blog for the Washington Post.
Mr. MICHAEL DAUBS (Washington Post): You dignify something with a response, and if you do then the response becomes the story. But I think that most them are concluding that you have to dignify even rumors with a response because if the rumor goes unaddressed, people will begin to believe in it.
FOLKENFLIK: Daubs warns the candidate's own site maybe filled with political spin. But Obama says the press corps is being spun too readily. Here he was last week speaking to reporters on that campaign plan.
Sen. OBAMA: Presumably the job of the press is to not go around and spread scurrilous rumors like this until there's actually anything, one iota of substance or evidence that would substantiate it.
FOLKENFLIK: That's the way it's supposed to work, but for now the Obama campaign has decided to take matters into its own hands, publishing rumors on its own Web site and then knocking them down.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.