Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Rethinking the facts

Post Details:
• A look at a Washington Post profile of an Ohio town where some residents seem to believe Obama rumors
• Quotes from local media coverage following the article and response
• A New York Times article discussing the effect of Obama’s middle name
• My thoughts

A Washington Post article published last Monday (6/30) about my corner of the world – northwest Ohio – has stirred a debate in the local media and an outrage from some residents here.

The piece by Eli Saslow details Findlay, Ohio – nicknamed “Flag City, USA” and about 45 minutes from where I live – where Sen. Barack Obama’s story seems to be twisted:

On the television in his living room, [resident Jim] Peterman has watched enough news and campaign advertisements to hear the truth: Sen. Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, is a Christian family man with a track record of public service. But on the Internet, in his grocery store, at his neighbor's house, at his son's auto shop, Peterman has also absorbed another version of the Democratic candidate's background, one that is entirely false: Barack Obama, born in Africa, is a possibly gay Muslim racist who refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
While I know these facts are false, I cannot help but confirm I’ve heard them here in Ohio. It’s disheartening as a journalist and resident to know some people will believe this nonsense, though by no means am I calling those believers stupid, just unfortunately confused and misinformed.

When people on College Street [where Peterman lives] started hearing rumors about Obama – who looked different from other politicians and often talked about change – they easily believed the nasty stories about an outsider.

So far, those who have pushed the truth in Findlay have been rewarded with little that resembles progress. Gerri Kish, a 66-year-old born in Hawaii, read both of Obama's autobiographies. She has close friends, she said, who still refuse to believe her when she swears Obama is Christian. Then she hands them the books, and they refuse to read them. "They just want to believe what they believe," she said. "Nothing gets through to them."
I have seen an Obama ad daily on local TV stations. Now I know why.

Letters to the editor regarding the article were published on the Post’s Web site. Here is a sampling:

Mr. Obama's campaign won't change minds overnight. But it may be surprised to find that towns such as Findlay harbor a few avid supporters. (AMY STULMAN, born in Tiffin, Ohio, and grew up in Findlay)

It is obvious to me that reporter Eli Saslow came to our city with an agenda -- to show that only unenlightened racists who believe wild and untrue stories about Sen. Barack Obama could possibly be against the candidate. Mr. Saslow chose an older portion of town with older residents and then ascribed their supposed views to our entire city. (RON MILLER, from Findlay)

Rather than require a photo ID for voting, maybe we should require an IQ test. (JEANIE McANDREW, from Bethesda)

The man [Obama] is running to be president of the United States. Is there anything more patriotic than that? (PAM FAITH, from Alexandria)


Local media coverage: “The reporter – Eli Saslow – wrote ‘Residents easily believe the nasty stories about an insider’ and implied Findlay was racist.”

Sources quoted in the article were said to be “furious.”

"I think he had this story figured out in his mind on how he was going put it before he even talked to us," Jim Peterman told one news station.

"The Washington Post and the reporter both owe my neighbors and my city a public apology for misleading the rest of the world," College Street Resident Don LeMaster said.

The Findlay Courier contacted Saslow about the reaction.

"That's a major bummer," the paper quoted Saslow, who said he was disappointed by the neighborhood’s reaction.

He said he did not intend for the story to be inflammatory. Instead, he hoped to showcase how interested in the election Findlay residents are — but also how rumors influence people's opinions.

"They're talking about it, people really care there," Saslow said.

He described Findlay as a "retrospective place," and admired its patriotism. He said he visited about 25 houses in Findlay, but settled on Peterman and his neighbors because they were a good "representative place."

"They had some of the best things to say," he said.

He said he did not mean to misrepresent Findlay and is sorry if some think he did.

A New York Times article highlighted some of the same points: that Obama and his supporters are trying to stop the inaccuracies circulating about the presidential hopeful. How? Followers are informally adopting Obama’s middle name Hussein, in order to “show how little meaning ‘Hussein’ really has,” according to one adopter (Ashley Holmes).

“Some Obama supporters say they were moved to action because of what their own friends, neighbors and relatives were saying about their candidate,” the Times reported.

Supporter Emily Nordling told the Times: “People would not listen to what you were saying on the phone or on their doorstep because they thought he [Obama] was Muslim.”

What I take away from these stories is that whether or not voters will admit to believing these or any other rumors, Obama (and even Sen. John McCain in other instances) have a big problem – the facts. This is not the first time and will not be the last – for Obama, McCain or any other public figure.

Please note: journalists do not go into a story with a vendetta planned or “agenda” mapped out. Saslow went to Findlay, known for its patriotism, and asked questions to its residents and found some compelling material, on which he reported in his article (as he said in interviews a day or so after his article was published). While his profile of Findlay may not have been representative of every resident, it did show part of the mood – if you will – of the city. The residents seemed to speak with candor, but they might not have liked the quotes Saslow used or the story he found.


Links:
Find the full Washington Post story
here
Find the Courier’s article
here
Find the New York Times piece
here

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