"About three or four months ago, something started surfing around the Web and it was a pretty scurrilous article suggesting not only that I had gone to a madrassa, but that my family members were Muslim radicals," Obama said. "And we didn't make much of it … you can't control what's on the Web. What was surprising was that it eventually bubbled up into the mainstream media."
Should Obama have been surprised? His late father -- whom he met once -- was a Muslim, and an ABC News poll from September indicates that 46 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Islam. And a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg News poll from last summer found that 54 percent of the American people say they would not vote for a Muslim for president.
Campaigns these days need to be prepared for any kind of attack: Witness the unsuccessful 2004 race of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who announced Wednesday that he would not run against Obama and the other Democrats for the Democratic presidential nomination. During his White House bid, Kerry waited several weeks to respond to questionable charges against his service in Vietnam launched by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a delay many say seriously damaged his candidacy.
"The Obama camp didn't know whether to deny this, thereby making it a legitimate issue for every media organization, or whether to ignore it and hope that the false rumor would simply go away," said Larry Sabato, Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. "They actually failed to make a decision promptly, which probably brought them the worst of both worlds."
Then there is also the question of who is behind the smear. Originally, when Fox's John Gibson discussed the madrassa story, he did so by suggesting -- as Insight magazine does -- that Hillary Clinton supporters were behind it.
Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign, vehemently denied that the campaign played any role in the smear, to which Jeffrey Kuhner, editor of Insight magazine told ABC News that his message to the Clinton campaign is: "Sue us."
"If he's so confident that this is a National Enquirer-style made-up story," the editor said, "He and Hillary should sue the pants off us, because if they're right, they could make millions and millions of dollars. But then we'll depose the investigators who have been conducting the investigation into Obama's background and they know it. This story is multi-sourced … I have never been more sure of a story in my life."
"There are so many enemies for every candidate and they all have access to the media," Sabato said. "It could have been the Republicans. It could have been one of many different people trying to kill off the Obama candidacy. So it's like a murder mystery -- there are tons of suspects."
In a statement to ABC News, Bill Shine, Senior Vice President of Programming for Fox News acknowledged that "the hosts of 'Fox & Friends' gave too much credence to the Insight magazine report and spent far too long discussing its premise on the air. Those remarks, however, were clarified on the next 'Fox & Friends' program. Furthermore, when John Gibson focused on the item, he, like other news outlets, presented Senator Obama's statement on the subject. We consider the matter closed and believe the senator feels the same way."
Is there a cautionary tale for the media and for candidates in this story? Obama says it's "very simple: Check your facts."
"Frankly, some of this will stick because no matter how thoroughly you debunk a story, the allegation is out there," Ornstein said.
Mark Twain once said that a lie can travel halfway around the world, while the truth is still putting on its shoes. With the presidential campaign season heating up so soon, those lies have already begun their travels.