As some of you may remember, I previously explained why I didn't put too much stock in the stories about Barack Obama's ties to Bill Ayers, a position for which I received some positive comments at Huffington Post and elsewhere. I concluded:
Further, Obama strikes people as an extremely non-violent person; indeed, Republicans might like him better if he seemed to be more willing to embrace violence against America's enemies. Thus, guilt by association seems a particularly unfair tack to take in criticizing Obama for someone else's violent acts. To the extent Obama's contacts with Ayers are relevant at all, then it shouldn't be as shared responsibility, but merely as a question of judgment and of candor if Obama were to be misleading in his statements.
It seems to me that Obama's serving on the board of the Woods Fund for a few years with a former member of the Weather Underground is not fundamentally different from my serving for more than a decade on a law faculty with one [ie, Bernadine Dohrn].
I'm much more interested in what the Annenberg Challenge funded and how its projects mirror Obama's current proposals than in who he served with.
Yet I was nonetheless puzzled by this story by Ben Smith at Poltico:
Barack Obama's campaign hasn't advertised this a great deal this week, but the campaign's "Action Wire" has been waging large-scale campaigns against critics. That includes tens of thousands of e-mails to television stations running Harold Simmons' Bill Ayers ad, and to their advertisers — including a list of major automobile and telecommunications companies.
And tonight, the campaign launched a more specific campaign: an effort to disrupt the appearance by a writer for National Review, Stanley Kurtz, on a Chicago radio program [hosted by University of Chicago sociologist, Milt Rosenberg, on WGN]. Kurtz has been writing about Obama's relationship with Bill Ayers, and has suggested that papers housed at the University of Illinois at Chicago would reveal new details of that relationship.
The campaign e-mailed Chicago supporters who had signed up for the Obama Action Wire with detailed instructions including the station's telephone number and the show's extension, as well as a research file on Kurtz, which seems to prove that he's a conservative, which isn't in dispute. The file cites a couple of his more controversial pieces, notably his much-maligned claim that same-sex unions have undermined marriage in Scandinavia.
"Tell WGN that by providing Kurtz with airtime, they are legitimizing baseless attacks from a smear-merchant and lowering the standards of political discourse," says the email, which picks up a form of pressure on the press pioneered by conservative talk radio hosts and activists in the 1990s, and since adopted by Media Matters and other liberal groups.
"It is absolutely unacceptable that WGN would give a slimy character assassin like Kurtz time for his divisive, destructive ranting on our public airwaves. At the very least, they should offer sane, honest rebuttal to every one of Kurtz's lies," it continues.
The campaign mentions, and objects to, one specific claim of Kurtz's, for which I've never seen hard evidence:
Just last night on Fox News, Kurtz drastically exaggerated Barack's connection with Ayers by claiming Ayers had recruited Barack to the board of the Annenberg Challenge. That is completely false and has been disproved in numerous press accounts.
There are several odd things about this:
1. Barack Obama and his campaign have denounced Ayers's actions and at least one of Ayers's statements, but I think that neither Obama nor his campaign has ever denounced Ayers himself. As with the first Reverend Wright speech, this is no accident. Obama usually takes the "Christian" position: hate the sin, love the sinner.
2. Kurtz, unlike Ayers, is denounced in the most vicious and uncivil terms (there is a lot more than I quoted). If Obama or his campaign had ever denounced Ayers with the fervor that his campaign has now used in denouncing Kurtz, Obama wouldn't be having trouble on his connection to Ayers. And I'm not suggesting that Obama should have denounced Ayers. I am just noting the grossly disproportionate responses of the Obama campaign to their differing offenses and the Obama campaign's direct attack on Kurtz's character, not just what he's done or said -- including very explicitly using arguments of guilt by association against Kurtz (which of course are being used against Obama, despite the protestations to the contrary of his critics).
3. I heard Kurtz's statements on FOX, and — though my memory may well be faulty — I thought that Kurtz was speculating that Ayers had probably recruited Obama, not stating it as a fact.
4. I went to Obama's official Fight the Smears page to read the transcript of what Kurtz said, and there was nothing there about Ayers. If Kurtz actually said what the Obama campaign said he said (Kurtz was "claiming Ayers had recruited Barack to the board of the Annenberg Challenge"), they should allow us to read the transcript. Since the Obama campaign is so emphatic in their email, perhaps my memory of what Kurtz said is wrong. I find it strange that the Obama's Fight the Smears website does not lay out the details of their relationship, including how Obama was hired by Annenberg.
5. The email says "That is completely false and has been disproved in numerous press accounts." As Ben Smith notes about the hiring claim, "I've never seen hard evidence" presumably he means from either side.
The Obama campaign response is so unusual (the wording used against a member of the press and their contacting TV advertisers on stations running the TV ad) that I wonder if they have polled the issue and they discovered that voters give this whole issue a lot more credence than I think it merits.
UPDATE: The Fact Check part of the Obama site, not the Fight the Smears page, has had a page on Ayers since April 17, 2008, with a URL that includes the phrase "fact_check_on_clinton_attacks."
The page is mostly about Ayers. It includes some news articles saying that the relationship is a stretch. The Annenberg tie is neither disclosed, nor mentioned, nor specifically debunked.
2d UPDATE: TPM has a thoughtful — and eminently reasonable — response to my post. I recommend you read it.
Some of Alkali's comments are about why the Obama campaign needed to respond now. I agree that they should respond now, but as I noted, I thought that the nature of the response was unusual: "the wording used against a member of the press and their contacting," not just TV stations, but their advertisers as well.
I noticed that the LA Times mentioned that WGN was Tribune owned, which reminded me that 29 years ago, I represented the Tribune Co. on several matters, and on at least one occasion, WGN. Also, the host of the radio program, Milt Rosenberg, is (as I previously noted), a Univ. of Chicago Sociology professor. That's the department where I am getting my Ph.D., though I've had no interaction with him there. My professional ties to Dohrn were previously disclosed above and in an earlier post. I've met Ayers only once, in the lobby of my building.