WASHINGTON, Jan. 25, 2007 -- Earlier today, I asked Sen. Barack Obama if as a child he attended a madrassa -- an Islamic school. He said no.
Madrassas are conservative Islamic schools, many of which teach a virulent hatred of America.
"It wasn't an extremist school at all?" I asked.
"It was an ordinary public school," he replied. "The kids ran around in short pants and learned math and science and participated in the Boy Scouts. It was comparable to any school here in the United States," he explained.
How on earth did we get to this point? Where a United States senator is explaining that he went to a normal elementary school and not a terrorist recruiting center?
Well, let's back up to last week … when the conservative Insight magazine posted a story claiming that "researchers connected to Sen. Clinton" had determined that Obama, during his childhood, lived in Indonesia where he moved after his mother remarried, and "enrolled in a madrassa and was raised and educated as a Muslim."
Obama denied that the story was true, and Clinton denied that she was spreading the story.
But on "Fox & Friends" on Jan. 19, Fox News' Steve Doocy fueled the fire by insisting that Obama spent, "the first decade of his life raised by his Muslim father as a Muslim and was educated in a madrassa … financed by Saudis, they teach the religion that pretty much hates us. The big question: Was that on the curriculum back then?"
And from there, the story spread everywhere.
"There's now almost a predictable process here. People have learned how to get things covered, even when they shouldn't be covered" said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
"You either start with a revelation in the Drudge Report or Insight magazine, then that gets picked up by the New York Post or The Wall Street Journal and Fox News and by the blogs, and before long there's enough noise out there and enough buzz that comes from it that everybody from The New York Times to The Washington Post to the network news broadcasts decide they have to cover it. And it doesn't matter if it's true or not," Ornstein said.
'We Are a Regular Public Elementary School'
ABC News sent a producer and a crew to Government Elementary School Number 4, where Obama attended school from ages six to eight. There, we found pretty much what you'd find at any school: boys and girls, basketball, computers, SpongeBob SquarePants.
"Here I learn about science, math, and English," said one sixth grader, Alyssa, who is 12 years old. "I am proud to go to this school because it is a prestigious school."
We saw some Muslim worship, but we also saw a class in Christianity, a painting of Jesus on the wall and a framed Lord's Prayer.
"We are a regular public elementary school," said the headmaster. "Children of all religions are welcome here."
"These rumors about our school being Islamic extremist school are completely incorrect," added the assistant headmaster.
Caught by Surprise
When the false reports about the school first appeared, the Obama campaign did not seem to know much about their candidate's years in Indonesia, and it wasn't until ABC and other media outlets including CNN went to the school that the charge was debunked.
Obama's team seemed unprepared for that attack, even though it wasn't entirely new to the senator.
"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.