WASHINGTON -- When I phoned the Obama press shop a few times in recent weeks to check out rumors about whether there was a videotape with Michelle Obama using the word "whitey," the campaign declined to issue a denial or to pass along the question to Michelle's staff to find out what might be fueling the rumors.
That's been a standard tactic in dealing with the mainstream press. Unless there is some evidence, ignore the matter and reporters for mainstream outlets probably won't publish anything about racially charged language without proof.
But the rumors about Michelle were kicking around the Internet and working their way into some broadcast outlets; Rush Limbaugh, for example, said rivals of presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama were "waiting to use it in October of Michelle going nuts in the church, too, talking about 'whitey' this and 'whitey' that."
Talking a week ago, Obama gave a frosty answer to McClatchy Newspapers reporter Margaret Talev, who asked about rumors concerning his wife.
"There is dirt and lies that are circulated in e-mail," he said. "And they pump them out long enough until finally you, a mainstream reporter, asks me about them. And then that gives legs to the story."
"He was visibly angry at being asked to dignify the rumor by denying it -- and so was his staff," said Talev, writing in her blog.
Note that Obama never simply said it was not true; he was concerned, as he said, that if he did, he would create a story. But the exchange got Obama to thinking it was time to shift tactics.
As detailed by Karen Tumulty in Time Magazine, Obama then told his "top aides it was time for a more aggressive solution to the rumors that have been popping up on the Internet about him and his family for months."
The result was the launch Thursday of an Obama Web site called www.fightthesmears.com. Though the Obama campaign has been running a fact-check site, there was no special attention to smears. Now there is.
From now on, rather than try to ignore rumors when they start -- that Obama was a Muslim, did not say the Pledge of Allegiance, was not born in the U.S., etc., the Obama team will activate its millions of followers into an Internet-based truth squad to separate lies from facts, based on information at the anti-smear site.
There is even a copy of Obama's birth certificate. Barack Hussein Obama II was born at 7:24 p.m. on Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu. (I did not know about the II.)
"The Obama campaign isn't going to let dishonest smears spread across the Internet unanswered. Whenever challenged with these lies we will aggressively push back with the truth and help our supporters debunk the false rumors floating around the Internet," Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.
If you hear that Michelle Obama gave a 'whitey' rant from, of all places, the Trinity United Church of Christ -- the church the Obamas quit recently following controversies with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the Rev. Michael Pfleger -- don't believe it.
"No such tape exists. Michelle Obama has not spoken from the pulpit at Trinity and has not used that word," the campaign said on the site.
Before the January primary in South Carolina, I pressed several different people on the Obama team about whether they had concerns about rumors circulating there that Obama was a Muslim. All I got in reply was jabberwocky; no one wanted to generate a story. But then Obama started talking about the internet rumors on the campaign trail.
He asked supporters not to delete the scurrilous e-mails but to reply with a message that he is a Christian. “Don’t let them bamboozle you with these dirty tricks,” he said.
Will an anti-smear Web site stop all the divisive, destructive chatter about Obama that is not true? I'm not sure. But it's better than trying to pretend that questions don't exist.