04/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Century of Smear: Obama, Rush Limbaugh, and Wikipedia

Never in the history of the English language has the word "smear" been as widely used as it is today. There is good reason for this. Politicians "smear" each other freely, even if they belong to the same party; and then the same politicians who were on the verbal attack cry, "Smear!" once their campaign fails. Business men lose money in ill-considered deals and, of course, it wasn't misjudgment or, a word that probably has never been used less than it is today -- failure -- but a "vicious" "smear", a "campaign", a "cabal."

The sad truth is that there actually is a basis for the accusation since everyone, it seems, instead of doing their jobs, are busy smearing others. This couldn't be more painfully obvious today, or this week. The brilliant Camille Paglia (who has the gift of becoming more and not less interesting with age) pointed out in Salon that Obama's "smirky" smearers have been busying themselves so assiduously with Rush Limbaugh that they forgot they have a second job: helping America's chief executive govern the country. Rather, Paglia says, these "flacks, fixers, and goons" launched the ridiculously named "Rushbo" operation, to which valuable hours of conference call consulting were devoted to attacking, or in other words promoting, the right wing's favorite radio host. Could there be more of a "smear" than a personal attack on a private citizen led by the president's top aides?

Rush Limbaugh, of course, cannot be exculpated from charges of smearian. Smear is a part of Rush Limbaugh's business -- though certainly not all of it -- and Mr. Limbaugh does an excellent job of greasing his opponents with political lard. But Rush Limbaugh is not an elected official, and nor is he a journalist, properly speaking. He is a radio host, a soap-box stander, and his job is to sometimes guide but mostly articulate and excite the political sentiments of his audience.

The problem is that politicians have begun to act in a similar fashion -- like "an oafish bunch of drunken frat boys", in Camille Paglia's words. And an even more serious problem is that journalists have also grabbed the political beer bong of smear and are now drunk on the stuff.

Sadly, the blogosphere, which has created some of the most important innovations in journalism in the last decade, which has launched many of its most important personalities, and which will one day be part of a 21 century journalism renaissance, has also led the way in the field of smear. Many bloggers avoid this and follow some kind of code (which might simply be called honesty). But many don't, and instead of disagreeing with politicians or journalists, they open up with epithets, because that's all they have to go on.

This was on full display recently regarding a relatively minor story about Wikipedia's editing practices on President Obama's Wikipedia page. It has long been known that Wikipedia, much like Digg, is not the glowing bastion of open-source free speech that it presents. The majority of its pages are maintained and written by a dedicated core (i.e. an elite), and the top administrators of the site have the ability to do whatever they want with their website. One journalist, Aaron Klein, World Net Daily's Jerusalem bureau chief, noticed this, looked into it, and wrote a story.

As is standard journalistic practice, Klein "tested" the story by having his own researcher attempt to make changes to the page. The changes (I'm not exactly sure what they said), were deleted within minutes, and the Wikipedia user account eliminated.

Many people have many things to say about Aaron Klein and even more things to say about World Net Daily. I often disagree with WND's positions on issues (and preferred political leaders). But I have never read a report by Klein which raises questions about his sourcing or accuracy. A reader of Klein's articles, which are often reported directly from the lion's den of Islamist terror, could grumble at his conclusions, but his journalistic methodology is scrupulously sound.

It can only elicit a sigh of tiredness, of boredom, or pity for a beaten dead horse, to see another smear-blogger going after a journalist because he didn't like the journalist's conclusions. A blog called ConWebWatch is doing just this, and to support the argument drums out epithets in the place of evidence, and guesswork in place of investigation. "Cronies", "sockpuppet", and other tired metaphors of political accusation are hurled, insinuations are made, and the mores of journalism take another beating. And for what? A story that calls into question the already questionable practices of an encyclopedia website.

The bigger question here faces American society on a whole. As the blogosphere increasingly becomes the place where news stories are grown and opinions are hatched, it must also take care that it's not the place where scandal-mongering is perfected and careless rumor-milling is made. Many Americans believe that the election of President Obama represents a revolution of political values -- towards transparency, fairness, and a levelheaded social temperament that politicians call "bipartisanship." Hopefully, this all comes true. But if the hands of the American body politic are perpetually smeared with political grease, how could we possibly build anything worth keeping?