Obama ‘Muslim School’ Mistake a Warning for Media — Likely to Be Ignored

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U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) hardly could have anticipated that the first minor media crisis of his presidential bid would involve where he went to school at age 7.

Chances are “about 100 percent” that a candidate will be ruined by a story that he or she hasn?t anticipated, said ABC News political reporter Jake Tapper.

A magazine article?s charge that Obama had attended a radical Islamic school while living in Indonesia as a boy was spread on blogs and, most prominently, on Fox News Channel.

CNN had time to do that because it wasn?t a hard news story, said Sam Feist, the network?s political director.

Tapper wrote about the story, with the Obama campaign?s denials, on his blog when it first surfaced. But like CNN, it didn?t appear on the air at ABC until after a reporter had gone to Jakarta.

“A long and protracted campaign like we?re going to see means you?re going to have long periods with not much news and news outlets are going to want to fill the void,” said Tom Rosenstiel, a former political reporter for the Los Angeles Times and now director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “In some ways, there are more openings for opposition research, dirty tricks, to get into play.”

Back in 1992, when the story first surfaced about Bill Clinton and his alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers, a reporter asked him about it one day and received a response. Yet the story was left off all three network newscasts that evening.

Before the Internet?s spread, a newsroom used to have only a handful of news sources coming into their computers, said Marty Ryan, political director at Fox News Channel.

Being careful about the facts is a lesson drummed into every journalist. But opinion-based talk shows aren?t run by journalists. They?re a staple of Fox?s lineup and spreading around other cable news outlets.

Television quickly magnifies stories that might have been forgotten or not even noticed otherwise, with Howard Dean ?s scream an infamous example. Remember: Most Americans did not have three cable news networks in their homes until the 2000 campaign.

Similarly, it wasn?t too long ago that the only Web site political professionals watched carefully was the Drudge Report. Now, there are dozens of political blogs that must be monitored.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, an expected GOP presidential candidate, has gone out of his way to cultivate relationships with prominent bloggers. He learned their bite earlier this month when a Massachusetts gadfly, Brian Camenker, wrote a lengthy report questioning Romney?s conservative qualifications that spread quickly on the Web.

Most campaigns have opposition research staff, whose job it is to search for damaging information about an opponent. The smart candidates do aggressive opposition research on themselves, so as not to be surprised by anything.

Campaigns are actually less likely now to feed damaging material to mainstream news organizations, Tapper said. The campaigns prefer the blogs.

“There are so many ways to get information out to people ? whether or not that information is true,” said Elizabeth Wilner, chief of NBC News? political unit.

Many Democrats believe that John Kerry ?s inability to respond quickly to an unanticipated story ? charges by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that he didn?t deserve his Vietnam War medals ? doomed his 2004 campaign. Swift response is now valued. So is aggressive response.

Still, the political whirlwind may not slow down because of the Obama example.

“I honestly think that no one is going to be chastened by anything this year,” Rosenstiel said.

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