[Editor’s note: After penning the popular “The Official Village Voice Election-Season Guide to the Right-Wing Blogosphere,” Roy Edroso, an apparent glutton for punishment, has made dissecting those blogs into a weekly feature that appears here every Monday (except on holiday weeks). So far, Roy has tried to untangle the twisted logic of the right’s undying love of Big Oil and how bad news for conservatives actually become good news when viewed through the funhouse mirror that is the right-wing blogosphere.]
Here’s as fine an example of message discipline as you’re ever likely to see: Michelle Obama is rumored to have spoken negatively on a videotape about someone named “Whitey” (perhaps the beloved Dead End Kid played by the late Billy Benedict). Google Michelle Obama plus variations on the phrase “railing against Whitey” and you get (at the moment) thousands of results. Keep hype alive!
The rumor was promulgated by Clinton supporter Larry Johnson, but the response among online Clintonites has been disappointing: while some rose to the bait (“If it’s true, I think the sooner it gets ‘out there,’ the better”), even at the large, and largely pro-Clinton, Talk Left the rumor was mainly restricted to reader comments.
But that’s okay — rightbloggers are better at this sort of thing anyway, and in a series of posts last week improvised such fanciful changes on the rumor as would make Thelonious Monk sound like a lounge pianist.
Some just acted as if the story were already proven true. “So, Michelle made a remark about ‘whitey,'” said God-bloggerer The Anchoress. “Liberals are always badmouthing ‘whitey!’ It’s not a racial thing, it’s an elitist thing!” American Thinker nodded sagely, “I heard the exact same thing about 10 days ago from a source who should be in the know,” thereafter switching freely between the subjunctive mood (“I don’t know how much damage it would do to Obama”) and the declarative (“I don’t think it will do anything except create a tempest for a few days and then blow over”), a demonstration perhaps of the revealing properties of bad grammar.
Others admittedly didn’t care whether there was anything to the rumor or not. “Its a great rumor,” enthused Uncorrelated, “because as I was saying yesterday — plausibility is the key element in these things. Its just easy to see this kind of language on the lips of the statuesque Michelle Obama…” (Statuesque? We pause, with a shudder, to consider the fantasy life of the author.) At National Review Online, Jim Geraghty declared himself a “skeptic,” then offered a lengthy analysis ending, “My guess is that even most Democrats recognize she’s capable of remarks like that.”
Some saw opportunities for “humor.” “WAS TEDDY’S SEIZURE CAUSED BY ALCOHOL OR BY THE MICHELLE OBAMA ‘KILL WHITEY’ TAPE RUMOR?” asked The Astute Bloggers, class all the way.
To be fair, some called bullshit, though it was plainly hard for them to abandon the subject without extracting some political capital from it — for example, Ed Morrissey of Hot Air, who said, “This smells a lot like a political dirty trick aimed at both Obama and the Republicans…”
And the Republicans? If you’re wondering how that would work, AJ Strata has it all figured out: because the original tipster mentioned Republicans who either have or are seeking the tape, Strata said it’s clear “he desperately needs this to look like a GOP effort…. If Michelle is on tape and it is available to the GOP and Obama camp… then the question boils down to how to make this hurt the GOP as much as the Democrats. One answer for all sides on the left is to lay as much blame on the GOP as possible.”
Getting voters to blame Republicans for Michelle Obama yelling Jeffersons-era racial slurs would be a neat trick indeed, and Strata included a picture of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies to convince readers of Hillary Clinton’s supernatural ability to cloud men’s minds.
In a follow-up, Strata provided still more deep analysis (“The far right has much easier ways to derail McCain if they want to”) before revealing that “I don’t think a video as damning as Johnson’s whisper campaign exists. If there is a video it is not as strong as hinted… that’s why the video is not out and why it is left to the scum of the Earth to whisper about it and let people’s imagination do the dirty work for the scum.”
But some of the better-read rightbloggers, perhaps fearing for their reputations, just passed the rumor along with slender or even subliminal comment, e.g. attaching it to a list of Obama “snippets” as if counting on readers to confuse the proven with the unproven.
That’s never a bad bet with this lot. Consider this item, published by Michael Yon and purportedly from the “Dept of Transportation Federal Transit Administration,” describing “incidents” in which “military personnel have been verbally assaulted while commuting on the [D.C.] Metro,” and advising servicemembers, “If possible, do not commute in uniform.”
Especially on the cusp of Memorial Day, it was an outrageous story; certainly Yon’s commenters were outraged (“I just want to see it one time – it will be on! They better have good health insurance”). So were many others. Austin Bay compared the attackers to Civil War Copperheads. Gateway Pundit picked the story up. So did a newspaper in New Mexico. And so on.
Then, to his credit, rightblogger Bob Owens, proprietor of the Confederate Yankee site, largely debunked the story at Pajamas Media — misattributed source, single incident, etc. Some bloggers who picked it up updated with corrections, which now sit atop piles of angry comments from people who will probably never go back to see it. Others, as of this writing, haven’t bothered — including Yon, and, oddly, including Owens at his own site.
And why should they? In the new media world, a story that is, in the old newspaper parlance, “too good to check” may also be too good to correct. And, as the Michelle Obama story shows, in the breathless world of blogs veracity isn’t a big deal. Why wait for confirmation? Rightbloggers gleefully adopted the phrase “fake but accurate” from the New York Times account of the 2004 Rathergate scandal as a joke on the mainstream media. But recent events suggest that, for them, it’s no longer a joke.
UPDATED, 05.27.08, 11:17 pm
My original post on internet rumors has drawn responses from Michael Yon and Bob Owens. As I wrote, Yon and Owens didn’t update their original posts about the DC memo (though Owens later added a complaint about me in his). But these authors did make separate clarifying posts — Yon’s was a brief link to Owens’ PJM update, and Owens’ was long and thorough. I regret missing these the first time out.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 27, 2008