News flash: Obama is not a Muslim

obama in a churchWhat is the point of reporting on Web rumors that are plainly false and contribute little to the political discussion? Unfortunately it becomes necessary when the rumors and false reports become too much of the story. The Washington Post reported in a front-page article, "Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him." From the start, the story rightly exposes rumors and false reports that Obama is a closet Muslim. In the second paragraph, the story explains why these rumors are silly and mentions the nugget of fact that gives these stories their spark:

Since declaring his candidacy for president in February, Obama, a member of a congregation of the United Church of Christ in Chicago, has had to address assertions that he is a Muslim or that he had received training in Islam in Indonesia, where he lived from ages 6 to 10. While his father was an atheist and his mother did not practice religion, Obama's stepfather did occasionally attend services at a mosque there.

The story attempts to lump together two issues: the first is the false Web rumor about Obama being a closet Muslim. The second is that Obama sees his time overseas in the world's largest Muslim country as an asset and a reason for people to vote for him. It shores up the international experience portion of his presidential resume:

"A lot of my knowledge about foreign affairs is not what I just studied in school. It's actually having the knowledge of how ordinary people in these other countries live," he said earlier this month in Clarion, Iowa.

"The day I'm inaugurated, I think this country looks at itself differently, but the world also looks at America differently," he told another Iowa crowd. "Because I've got a grandmother who lives in a little village in Africa without running water or electricity; because I grew up for part of my formative years in Southeast Asia in the largest Muslim country on Earth."

While considerable attention during the campaign has focused on the anti-Mormon feelings aroused by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R), polls have also shown rising hostility toward Muslims in politics. It is not clear whether that negative sentiment will affect someone who has lived in a Muslim country but does not practice Islam.

That last sentence is a pretty poor piece of writing and reporting. First of all, you shouldn't start sentences with an "it" in general. It (oops) makes it hard to know what the writer is referring to. Second, what isn't clear about people's sentiment toward a person who lived in a Muslim country for a few years but doesn't practice the religion? No one is thinking about opposing a candidate because he lived overseas. They are thinking about opposing a candidate because they think he is a closet Muslim.

The two issues to an extent go hand-in-hand, and one has to wonder how many people out there really believe that Obama is a closet Muslim versus those who consider his time overseas and understanding of Muslim culture as an asset.

Buried at the end of the story, we get these fairly surprising poll numbers that may be out of date, given the coverage already devoted to Obama's faith:

A CBS News poll in August showed that a huge number of voters said they did not know Obama's faith, but among those who said they did, 7 percent thought he was a Muslim, while only 6 percent thought he was a Protestant Christian.

The last half of the story repeats the false accusations that Obama is a Muslim and cites the frequent references to it in magazines and Internet message boards. I guess this is necessary for a reporter to convey the message that there are people out there who like to spread false rumors, including talk radio hosts and chain e-mails, but it seems like overkill. Is it really news that there are many instances of people spreading false rumors about a politician?

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