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A Contest of Outrage

Two furors stoked by the blogosphere over the last 24 hours neatly illustrate the changing political climate in the United States these days and underscore the depths of suspicion, anger and hostility out there as the country tries to pick a new leader. Conservative bloggers ripped CNN for airing at this week's Republican debate questions submitted by people who support Democratic candidates. And liberal bloggers ripped The Washington Post for publishing a story on untrue rumors that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is secretly a Muslim.

Both episodes speak to the harsh and unforgiving environment less than five weeks before the first voting begins in Iowa, one fostered and encouraged by the miracles of technology that are transforming society. In both cases, any legitimate criticism and sober-minded discussion of the issues raised get drowned out by the loudest, most vituperative voices. The net result is not dialogue, but a contest of outrage.

CNN admits it erred by using a YouTube question by a retired general who serves on a campaign committee advising Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Given the Clinton camp's history of planting favorable questions at her own town halls, it's understandable that many would wonder if the general was a plant to ask a tough question of the Republicans. (Both he and the campaign deny it.) And CNN drew more attention to him by putting him in the studio audience and giving him the microphone at one point. That led to all sorts of "outing" of other questioners who, it turned out, support Democrats.

But lost in all this Google gotcha is this: Why should candidates be shielded from being asked questions by people who don't necessarily agree with them? Isn't that what a "town hall" is supposed to be all about? Shouldn't a future president be tough enough to face dissent? Won't a future president be president of all the people? In the old days, when candidates had real town halls that weren't moderated by television stars, real voters could show up and ask questions even of candidates they didn't support. Somehow the assumption now seems to be that Republicans should only face questions from Republicans and, presumably then, Democrats should only face questions from Democrats. But at the CNN/YouTube debate featuring Democrats earlier this year, there were questions from obviously conservative voters - one from a gun rights advocate comes to mind - and why should they not have to explain to a gun owner why they support restrictions on their ownership?

Moreover, the blogosphere seems fixated on the identity of the questioners rather than the questions themselves. None of the questions asked during the debate seemed unfair or a cheap shot. The general's question touched on a relevant public policy issue, namely, should gays be allowed to serve in the military openly or not. Both Republican and Democratic candidates have been asked that question at various forums during the campaign so it was hardly a surprise. Another questioner targeted by the bloggers was a woman who apparently is an activist for the United Steelworkers, which has endorsed former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.). But her question was about the safety of toys from China. Is that somehow a trick question? Millions of parents across the country, presumably both Republicans and Democrats, have been fishing toy trains out of their children's rooms worried about lead poisoning. Is there something nefarious in asking presidential candidates about that?

The presumption of ill will extends across the ideological spectrum. The Post ran a story on the front page this week on the whispers about Obama's supposed Muslim faith even though he is a Christian. The reporter wrote the story because a voter in Iowa told him that Obama is a Muslim and he was struck that people remain so ill informed. That sort of misinformation has been common out there and, as the story showed, spread by some people in an attempt to taint Obama. But somehow a story intended to debunk the false claims, trace their origin and explore the challenge they present the campaign in trying to quash them spawned a furious eruption among liberal bloggers accusing the Post of spreading the rumors.

Any reasonable reading of the story makes clear they are not true. Right there in the second paragraph, it says Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ in Chicago. In other words, a Christian, not a Muslim. And yet the bloggers seem to think readers are so stupid they will actually think the Post is saying the opposite. The story's obvious intent is to clarify, which it did. If people are misinformed about a key aspect of a major presidential candidate to his detriment, then journalism performs a service by addressing misinformation. And if foes are using unfounded rumors to damage a candidate, especially in a subterranean way, then journalism should expose that. Critics can reasonably debate this or that wording in the story, but certainly the intent is clear no matter how much it is distorted on the Web.

What this week shows is that intent is in the eye of the beholder. And the campaign developing over the next 11 months will be filled with more anger, accusation and antipathy.

--Peter Baker

By Washington Post editors  |  November 30, 2007; 1:43 PM ET
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