[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
Yesterday, a cable news anchor promised to "break down" whether Barack Obama's remarks at a South Chicago church were heartfelt or part of a "Machiavellian" attempt to change his public image. Was this report from Fox News? Nope. The anchor was Rick Sanchez of CNN. (Remind your conservative friends of Sanchez's actions the next time they call CNN liberal.)
Such irresponsible, tabloid journalism is especially outrageous, coming during a weekend of mourning over the untimely death of the great "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert. Russert's responsible, balanced and researched approach, with a laser-like concentration on the issues, stands as a 180-degree counterpoint to Sanchez's pandering garbage.
Obama's lecture was about the responsibility of fathers to take responsibility for their children. What is there to break down? Is Sanchez suggesting that Obama is not in favor of loving parenting? Or that it was not normal to discuss this topic on, yes, Father's Day? It certainly couldn't be the fact that Obama was worshipping on Sunday, seeing as his 20-year association with a church is well-known, thanks to the media coverage of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
So what was Sanchez suggesting? I would argue that Sanchez's remark was part of a larger trend.
Fox News, in a more obvious and crass way, has already established one of its approaches to attacking Obama: It will try to scare people by implying that Obama is "different." How else do you explain Fox News using an on-screen super that referred to Michelle Obama as Barack Obama's "baby mama," or a Fox News anchor calling a fist bump between the Obamas a "terrorist fist jab"? Besides being culturally ignorant (a "baby mama" is an unmarried mother of a man's child, while the Obamas were married for six years before having their first of two daughters, and a fist bump is such a common sports celebration, you can watch George H.W. Bush engage in one here), the references are offensive.
There are still conservatives that will tell you with a straight face that Fox News is a legitimate news outlet, but these kinds of ridiculous games that portray Obama as out of the mainstream are more reminiscent of Soviet-era Tass than anything resembling journalism.
Sanchez's promise to "break down" Obama's remarks on fatherhood, which were anything but controversial, are no better than the antics of the folks at Fox News. Sanchez said there was something questionable about Obama's motives, even though there was not a single shred of evidence to support such an assertion. Whether Sanchez's motivations were sensationalistic (to boost ratings) or partisan (to help McCain) doesn't really matter. The bottom line is that he is engaging in innuendo as to Obama's motives in a way that is irresponsible and offensive.
As Americans, we are used to presidential contests that feature exaggerations in debates about the issues. On "This Week" yesterday morning, host George Stephanopoulos had to remind Fred Thompson, speaking for the McCain campaign, that an independent source found that Obama's tax plan gave more relief to the middle class than McCain's proposal did. Stephanopoulos also challenged John Edwards, representing Obama, as to the independent finding that McCain's proposed corporate tax reductions could help boost the economy. Thompson even accused Obama of being dishonest, saying that he will raise taxes for more Americans than the select group (those who earn more than $250,000) identified in his plan, with only the vaguest of arguments to back it up (claiming that Obama will need to raise more money than he is saying he will need). This is a normal American political debate on issues. The two sides might exaggerate, but the arguments stick to policy, and the facts can certainly be verified by an engaged moderator or through a little research on the part of the voter.
But this kind of give and take is light years away from the sensationalism showed by Sanchez and Fox News. Rather, based on these early examples, it would seem that Obama will be forced to contend with a "he's different" campaign meant to scare voters away. And because of Obama's unique place in history, these tactics even surpass the "swift boating" of John Kerry for dirty politics.
Obama is the first African-American to earn the nomination of a major party for the U.S. presidency. As such, this presidential campaign will be different than any other that has come before it. And that means that Obama and his campaign have to be ready to fight back when fear mongers in the media engage in these kinds of divisive tactics. They cannot let the impression take hold that these kinds of attacks are legitimate.
But it's also up to reputable news organizations to address the acts of fear mongering as reportable news, just as Keith Olbermann did when he shined light on the Fox News "baby mama" super and the anchor's accusation that a simple fist bump was somehow terrorist in nature. Such coverage wouldn't be partisan. It would simply shine a light on a nefarious practice worthy of being shamed.
It's understandable why the Republicans would want to avoid a debate on the issues. With George W. Bush's approval rating at a historic low (28 percent in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll) and a recent CBS/New York Times poll revealing that 81 percent of respondents said that the country is on the "wrong track," it is clear that McCain will have a hard time running and winning on a GOP platform. But that doesn't make this kind of ugly fear campaign any more palatable.
Tim Russert may no longer be around to keep the playing field fair, but every journalist should aspire to meet the standards he set out. There should no place in our political culture for these kinds of attacks on Obama. They are ugly, and they should not be tolerated by any proud American, regardless of party affiliation.