Digital age gives truth a fighting chance to counteract the smears

Bill Clinton got a hard lesson recently in a new rule of politics. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), meanwhile, tried to make some new rules of his own.

Bill Clinton got a hard lesson recently in a new rule of politics. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), meanwhile, tried to make some new rules of his own.

A blogger for the Huffington Post caught up to Clinton after a political event and, without mentioning her affiliation, prompted Clinton into a fiery denunciation of a Vanity Fair writer who'd written an unfriendly article about the former president. The exchange was recorded and made major waves.

The blogger's failure to identify herself as a political blogger was wrong. But a key part of Clinton's failure - not so much his harsh words, definitely over the top even though the magazine piece, which relied entirely on unnamed sources, was fairly slimy - was that he should have realized that in today's digital world every public figure's utterance is likely to be captured and played back to the public.

The same blogger had earlier recorded some incautious words from Obama at a San Francisco fundraiser, where he seemed to talk about certain working-class folks in a less than entirely respectful way. His mistake in that case only highlighted the potentially smart move he's made in another arena: debunking scurrilous charges that are being directed his way. As in all elections, sometimes shadowy opponents are using innuendo and outright lies to smear, not to enlighten.

On the Democratic candidate's Web site is a section called "Fight the Smears," in which the campaign cites a charge and then refutes it. Visitors can "spread the truth," as the hyperlink says, to others. There's also an inbound link where the campaign asks people to forward sleazy items they receive by e-mail or see on the Web. Oh, there's a "Donate Now" button, too.

Is this a smart move? I hope so, because it's vital to fight back against those who use media to launch their smears. People have been all too willing to believe the worst about others, sometimes because those who have been attacked don't fight back or wait too long to challenge the lies.

John Kerry waited far too long in 2004 when he was being pilloried, for the most part with gross unfairness, by the Boaters and their ilk. Clearly, Obama went to school on Kerry's (and others') lessons.

No doubt there's a risk that talking about lies could simply give them more currency. Yet it's a risk worth taking, especially when the evidence of a smear - and a way to help others understand the truth - is but a click away.

Winston Churchill famously said, "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." In the digital age, the truth has a better chance of catching up. But it needs everyone's help.

Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Send e-mails to dan@gillmor.com.

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