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A month ago, the editors of the Utica (N.Y.) Observer-Dispatch saw a sudden spike in Web readership for stories about the Rev. William Procanick, pastor of a local church who had been convicted of sexually abusing a child.
A story about Procanick was the upstate New York newspaper's No. 1 story in April, with 10 times the readership of the second-highest story. The paper's editors wouldn't expect such a story to generate so much interest, but Procanick's church was in a little-known town with a well-known name: Clinton.
In headlines and stories, Procanick was identified simply as "Clinton pastor."
For some supporters of Barack Obama, including one who posted an item on an official Obama campaign blog, that was an easy recipe for outrage. After seeing their candidate battered over his connection with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the phrase "Clinton pastor" was all they needed to conclude that Bill and Hillary Clinton's pastor was a convicted sex offender.
Never mind that Bill and Hillary don't attend Procanick's church, which is 225 miles from their home in Chappaqua, N.Y. And never mind that the Observer-Dispatch's stories never suggested any connection between the Clinton pastor and the political Clintons. In the lightning-fast world of the blogosphere, emotions often outrun the facts.
"Okay, so now that Bill and Hillary Clinton's pastor has been convicted of child molestation, will we see the same furor directed at Hillary that Obama has had to endure these last few weeks? I don't think so!!!!" said a chain e-mail that was sent to PolitiFact and pasted on blogs.
Similar postings have appeared a blog called "Black Love is Alive," in a comment on the National Journal blog "Hotline on Call," and even on a motorcycle blog called "The Sportbike Network," under the headline "Billary's preacher is now a convicted pedophile."
On My.BarackObama.com, the Obama campaign's official blog, Shemora Singletary of Columbus, Ohio, posted an item April 25, 2008, that was headlined "Clinton's former pastor convicted of child molestation."
Singletary, a volunteer blogger on the site with the nickname "Knowledge Seeker," groused that the media hasn't paid enough attention to the episode involving the Clinton pastor.
"Will this story get the press that Rev. Wright is getting?? And will the Clinton's have to answer for the character of this man??" she wrote.
She posted an article from the Utica paper and this postscript: "Now that Obama's lynching has gone off as planned, think the MSM (mainstream media) will run this story about Clinton's former pastor? Or would that upset the planned election of either Israeli-firster Hillary vs. Israeli-firster McCain?"
Singletary's posting drew two comments that said she was wrong. She acknowledged one of those comments but did nothing to correct or retract the inaccurate posting.
Singletary could not be reached for comment.
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said that the posting was not authorized by the campaign and that it was removed Wednesday morning after PolitiFact inquired about it. But it had been on the Obama site for nearly three weeks.
"This is one of more than 800,000 user-generated pages. It's like a comment on your blog," Vietor said. "And it's been taken down."
The posting was on a campaign blog created by volunteers who support Obama, but it's not always clear where an official Web site ends and the blog begins. The Obama blog has the same logo, candidate photo and quotation ("I'm asking you to believe . . .") as the regular campaign site. The only thing to distinguish it from the rest of the site is a headline that says "Community Blogs."
It has no disclaimer to indicate the messages may not be authorized by the campaign. To the contrary, at the bottom of the page it says "PAID FOR BY OBAMA FOR AMERICA."
(Since the campaign removed the page, we have preserved the original posting here. )
Academic experts who study politics on the Internet say having the message about the Clinton pastor on the Obama site gives it extra credibility.
"You assume that those things are representing statements the campaign believes are true," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of a new book on presidential rhetoric called Presidents Creating the Presidency.
Julie Germany, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, said sophisticated Web users might understand the distinctions between a campaign site and its blog, but many readers don't.
"To somebody who doesn't know the blogosphere very well, (having it on an Obama site) could actually validate what the post is saying," she said.
The experts said campaigns need to police their sites more carefully.
Jamieson said the campaigns should be "vigilantly policing their own blogs – or making them freestanding blogs unassociated with the campaign – so the campaign isn't perceived to be attaching its credibility to the information."
Vietor, the Obama spokesman, said the Obama blog is so large that the campaign must rely on the "community" – the people who post on the blog – to do the policing.
"Users help police the page," Vietor said. "Obviously we can't monitor all 800,000 pages in real time. So users help us flag and take down inappropriate content."
Apart from the policing issues, the tale about the Clinton pastor shows that some bloggers don't spend a lot of time on research. Indeed, it doesn't take much Internet searching to find that there's no connection with the political Clinton, a fact that the Obama campaign was quick to acknowledge.
Mike Kilian, managing editor of the Observer-Dispatch, said he was amazed that so many people could have such a big misunderstanding with so few facts.
He said, "Any fourth-grader could read those stories and know there is nothing to do with Bill or Hillary."
As for the claim by the bloggers and the chain e-mails, we find it isn't just false. It's Pants-on-Fire wrong.
The Truth Will Set You Free blog, Clinton's former pastor sentenced to prison for sexually assaulting a 7 year-old girl
Black Live is Alive blog, Do I see smoke coming from Hillary's Church pew? May 4, 2008
The Sportbike Network blog, Billary's preacher is now a convicted pedophile, May 1, 2008
Utica Observer-Dispatch, Former Clinton pastor's alleged sex abuse confession questioned, Oct. 26, 2007
Utica Observer-Dispatch, Fate of ex-pastor in jury's hands" Jan. 18, 2008
Utica Observer-Dispatch, Judge to ex-pastor: 'You lied'" Feb. 29, 2008
Interviews: Mike Kilian, managing editor of Utica Observer-Dispatch; Kathleen Hall Jamieson, University of Pennsylvania; Tommy Vietor, Obama campaign spokesman; Julie Germany, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet; John Horrigan, associate director of research, Pew Internet Project