Tonight I read an interesting diary at Booman Tribune regarding Larry Johnson’s infamous whitey tape and Booman’s efforts to preemptively defuse the smear. On a superficial level it can be read as a funny prank that exposed Johnson as a fraud, though the story also raises a number of issues about the power of blogs and the ability of diarists to manipulate their readership which would be important to keep in mind as the blogosphere develops into a legitimate rival to the traditional media.
As many of us know, Larry Johnson of No Quarter claimed for some months to have access to a tape in which Michelle Obama referred to white people as “whitey.” Initially Johnson claimed that he would release the tape at the end of the primaries in an attempt to sink Obama’s candidacy. Since then, there have been rumors that the whitey tape would be released at various times, such as after the Democratic National Convention, when Obama was locked in as the nominee. Johnson has never provided evidence that the tape actually exists.
In light of the damage this completely unsubstantiated smear would cause, another blogger, Booman of the Booman Tribune, decided to head Johnson off at the pass. Inspired by a joke comment at MyDD, he penned the following on June 1:
My old friend, Larry Johnson, knows about manipulating elections from his training with the Central Intelligence Agency. He doesn’t want Obama to win the nomination for whatever reason, and he’s in full propaganda mode to do everything he can to frighten the superdelegates. He claims to have a shocking tape of Michelle Obama ranting in some anti-white diatribe. He promises to produce this tape tomorrow at 9am.
From what I understand, it is a tape of Michelle Obama criticizing the Bush administration.
How you’d say it:
Why’d he cut folks off medicaid?
Why’d he let New Orleans drown?
Why’d he do nothing about Jena?
Why’d he put us in Iraq for no reason?
How Larry Johnson wants you to hear it:
Whitie cut folks off medicaid?
Whitie let New Orleans drown?
Whitie do nothing about Jena?
Whitie put us in Iraq for no reason?
Booman explained his actions two weeks later:
This decision, on Larry’s part, is the last straw as far as I am concerned, and I know the tape doesn’t exist and that Larry can’t produce it. So, I copy someone else’s snarky comment and write it up as if it is a transcript. Instead of the tape having Michelle Obama saying ‘Whitey’ it has her saying ‘Why’d he?’
You see, it provided an explanation that rendered a non-existent tape harmless, and Larry couldn’t refute it because he made it up and he doesn’t have a transcript. This leads to quite a bit of embarrassment and pressure on Larry to prove he wasn’t just peddling racist bullshit. But Larry’s caught on the flypaper. He’s already said he hasn’t seen the transcript, so he can’t say with any assurance that I’m not telling the truth. He can’t admit he made it up and that he knows I haven’t seen the transcript, so he attempts to contact me by email, by calling my ex-wife, etc., to see if he can get me on the record as not having seen the non-existent transcript.
Even now, at the end of the campaign, Johnson still maintains that the whitey tape exists. Even crazier, though, is that he has incorporated Booman’s hoax into his narrative:
None of my three main sources on who told me about the existence of a video recording of Michelle Obama making disparaging comments about white folks have backed off. Two of these sources are Democrats and are journalists. They were not trying to sabotage the Obama campaign. They were passing on something they believed to be true. The fact that my third source, a person who lives on the West Coast and is a Republican, has no ties whatsoever to the other two but told the same story persuaded me this “tape” exists. My Republican friend tells me that the McCain campaign intervened and requested the tape not be used.
There also is the fact that the Obama campaign at one point circulated the lame story that Michelle was not using “whitey” as an epithet. Nope. She was saying, “Why’d he.” You don’t put out a story line like that if such a recording does not exist. At this point I don’t think it is going to be used.
So, to recap:
(1) Larry Johnson, in all likelihood, fabricated a smear out of thin air to derail Obama’s candidacy;
(2) People with a vested interest in the truth of that story ran with it, without ever questioning whether the story was true;
(3) Another blogger, convinced that the story was false, constructed a counter-rumor that was equally false, and relied on the same rumor-mongering from Obama supporters to spread the counter-rumor;
(4) Johnson, still convinced that his readers wouldn’t do any fact-checking on their own, simply took the admittedly false counter-rumor and grafted it into his existing mythology.
In the end, I suppose that this is a moral victory of sorts, in that the whitey tape never did achieve its intended effect and Johnson looks like a pathetic loser. Nonetheless, this sequence of events does not reflect well on the rationality of bloggers on either side of the issue and suggests that a loud voice is often more powerful than the facts. It also raises the question of whether intentional deception may be justified when it serves a greater purpose, and if so, whether this was such a time.