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SUMMARY: Blogs and chain e-mails are spreading a Maureen Dowd column that claims the Obama campaign got suspicious contributions from Iran, Saudi Arabia and China. But the column is a fake.
At first glance, the chain e-mail looks like an authentic column by Maureen Dowd, the Pulitzer-winning New York Times columnist. It has her byline and a headline that says "OBAMA'S TROUBLING INTERNET FUND RAISING." Some versions even have Dowd's picture.
But the column is a fake, the latest weapon in the growing arsenal of chain e-mailers who are spreading false information about the presidential candidates.
The column, which is dated June 29, 2008, says Dowd got a call from "one of the Obama's campaign [sic] internet geeks" who told her the campaign has received a flood of small contributions from overseas. The contributors were difficult to trace, the column says, but they came from a small number of banks and credit cards in various countries, particularly from "Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other Middle Eastern countries."
The column says that "another concentrated group of donations was traced to a Chinese ISP (Internet provider) with a similar pattern of limited credit card charges."
The column says campaign officials were aware "these donations were very likely coming from sources other than American voters," but they concluded it was legal to accept them. Federal law prohibits foreign nationals from contributing to the presidential campaigns, but donations from Americans living overseas are legal and fairly common.
The column calls the decision to accept them "a shocking revelation" and says the Obama campaign should be audited. (You can find the full text of the e-mail here .)
The column is bogus. Dowd told us she did not write it and that "It just seems like anyone who is familiar with my column would know this wasn't me."
It's not clear who wrote the column. One of the early appearances of the column was when it was posted June 29 on a blog on AZCentral, the Arizona Republic newspaper site, by someone identified as Thomas Moore. In his bio, Moore describes himself as "a retired journalist/technical writer/illustrator" and a fan of Barry Goldwater. His photo on the blog is a computer animation of a man waving a McCain sign, although Moore has no apparent ties to the McCain campaign.
When someone pointed out on his blog that the column was a fake, Moore wrote, "It appears that I may be the fool for posting the editorial, since I don't find it on the NYT Website, either. I'm checking with the friend who sent it to me, as to whether he copied it directly from the Website."
But Moore then mused that it still might be accurate and that the New York Times might have pulled the column from the Web site because the newspaper feared a lawsuit.
Moore could not be reached for comment. A posting on his blog July 5 said he was departing for a long sailing vacation.
"I should return in September," he wrote, "so in my absence please torment the liberals just as if I were here."
How it spread
The quick spread of the bogus column is testament to the lightning-fast nature of politics in the Internet age. On Monday morning, July 7, PolitiFact found it posted on only a few blogs, one of which was on the Obama campaign blog, under the headline "Maureen Dowd spoof spreads." It discredited the column.
But by nightfall Monday, the column was posted on at least eight blogs. By Tuesday morning, that had grown to at least 30 blogs.
As the blog postings multiplied, the column was also being spread widely by chain e-mails. PolitiFact received it from two readers who said it was not authentic and asked us to write about it. At the bottom of both of those e-mails was the same name, someone who had been forwarding the bogus column: Richard Kranker
'I just simply forwarded it'
Reached at his home in Hendersonville, N.C., on Tuesday, Kranker told us he had forwarded the column to 15 or 20 friends.
"Somebody sent it to me and so I just simply forwarded it," he said. "Is it not accurate?"
When we said it was a fake, Kranker said he would e-mail his friends and tell them. A retired government official who worked in the State Department's foreign aid program, Kranker, 77, said he often forwards political messages likes this one to friends.
He said he usually verifies the claims in the e-mails before he forwards them, but did not this time. He believed it was authentic in part because it had Dowd's photo.
"This one sounded so possibly true that I didn't bother checking it," he said, adding that he must have been lazy that day.
"It wouldn't surprise me if it were true. I'm conservative and I think that the politicians on both sides will stop at nothing (to raise campaign money) – including closing their eyes," Kranker said. He says he forwards the messages because "I don't believe that the major media tell the truth. They often skew the truth."
Kranker e-mailed friends who received the bogus column Tuesday evening and told them he had heard it was not true.
Kranker describes himself as a conservative, but he is disenchanted with Republicans. "My understanding of politics is the politicians' creed which I believe is me first, the party second and the country last. And that's both sides – the Bush administration and the Republicans have failed us."
He said he is lukewarm about John McCain. "I don't think I'll ever forgive him for McCain-Feingold," the Arizona senator's campaign finance reform law. "I may vote for him . . . but he isn't my ideal candidate."
Still, Kranker said McCain is a better choice than Barack Obama.
"Obama is a socialist – a straight-out socialist. He makes it very clear."
Dowd fans spot a fraud: Column had no movie references
Dowd fans were quick to see the column didn't have the writer's unique voice.
"As far as pastiches go, it makes no effort to imitate Dowd's style in the least," wrote someone named Mo MoDo on The Dowd Report, a blog that tracks the columnist's work. "There are no silly puns, alliteration, movie references, or odd nicknames. It's just pure unsubstantiated allegations of campaign fraud."
Mo MoDo wondered why the author chose Dowd.
"What has us at Dowd Central scratching our head is that if you want to plant phony accusations at Obama, why attach Maureen Dowd's name to it? For a fake veneer of authenticity, it seems to be a puzzling choice. ( New York Times columnist Paul) Krugman as the resident Clinton supporter and the far wonkier number cruncher would have been a more plausible target."
Dowd says she hadn't heard of the bogus column until we called her about it. She said she stopped looking herself up on the Internet years ago, after someone showed her a fake photograph of her having sex with Bill Clinton.
She's surprised people believed the column was real. "It's hard to believe that anybody would give it any credibility as mine. It's about money – something I know nothing about."
Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor of the New York Times , said the paper's editors first heard about it last week. "I'm sure if we knew who was sending it, we would ask them to stop," he said. But he added that, "It's very hard to counter this kind of thing."
Interviews: Maureen Dowd, columnist, New York Times; Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor, New York Times; Richard Kranker.
AZCentral blog of Thomas moore, OBAMA'S TROUBLING INTERNET FUND RAISING June 29, 2008
Obama campaign blog of Dave McLane, Maureen Dowd spoof spreads, July 4, 2008
The Dowd Report, Hoax Dowd Column Making The Rounds, July 8, 2008