Palestinian American historian Rashid Khalidi speaks during a press conference… (Laurent Gillieron Keystone…)
In the final desperate days of campaign 2008, as their shot at the White House slipped away, John McCain and Sarah Palin railed against the Los Angeles Times. The Republicans insisted the newspaper had a secret video that would prove Barack Obama consorted with leftists.
Ever since, it has become an article of faith in outposts of the political right that the hidden “Khalidi video” includes absolute proof that the 44th president has a warm embrace for radicals and those who hate the state of Israel.
The latest resurrection of the Khalidi video mythology came this week courtesy of Breitbart.com. The website on Thursday offered a $100,000 reward for a copy of the “Khalidi tape” — which the right-wing site speculates will lay bare the ugly back story of Obama’s disdain of Israel, his “sacrifice” of Free Speech, and his effusive support of Mideast radicals.
Such fantastical thinking is rife not just on Breitbart.com but across the conservative Interwebs. On the website of Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, for example, one woman ranted on the certainty that this lone video would expose “this Muslim traitor who will do anything to hide his true identity and plans to further destroy America!”
In what will doubtless be a vain attempt to quell the bleating from the political fringe, I offer here a review of the true history of the “Khalidi tape,” why dreams of its transformational import are overblown and why the political noise machine should be thanking The Times, rather than vilifying it.
The Khalidi contretemps began in the spring of 2008, when one of The Times’ brightest and most aggressive reporters, Peter Wallsten, reported a story about how budding politico Obama had cultivated strong ties with Palestinian Americans in Chicago.
The resulting 1,900-word story showed that — as a state senator and while running for the U.S. Senate — Obama nurtured friendships with a number of influential members of the community, including the University of Chicago academic Rashid Khalidi.
A scholar and critic of Israel, Khalidi was viewed dimly by some for his sharp criticism of U.S. policy in the Mideast and for saying that Palestinians have the right to resist the Israeli occupation. He is viewed by Palestinians as moderate, having condemned suicide attacks and the actions of radical groups such as Hamas.
The Wallsten story exposed how candidate Obama, in effect, worked both sides of the fence — maintaining strong relationships with Jewish community leaders and friends of Israel while leaving some Palestinians with the impression he was much more supportive of their views than he was willing to say in public.
Helping flesh out this portrait was a video of a 2003 farewell party for Khalidi as he left Chicago to take a job at Columbia University in New York. A source gave Wallsten access to the video and Wallsten used it to describe the going-away party — in which speakers honoring Khalidi could be seen “sharply criticizing U.S. support of Israel.”
Wallsten reported that “Obama adopted a different tone in his comments and called for finding common ground.” But the story left the impression of a politician who was able to ingratiate himself with both sides in one of the world’s most combustible political fights.
So why couldn’t the newspaper simply release the video, along with the story? This is where the tempest, which began four years ago, continues to this day.
The misunderstanding stems from one camp’s unwillingness to hear, or acknowledge, some essential truths about the way journalists do their jobs. Wallsten, like every other honest reporter out there battling for information, must build relationships with sources.
Every conversation about a piece of information becomes a transaction. For many sources who share previously confidential information, their threshold for divulging the secret is that their identity be shrouded. That also means keeping confidential any details, regarding the exchange of information, that might tend to divulge the source’s identity.
In the case of the Khalidi video, the unnamed source agreed to share the illuminating bit of video evidence with Wallsten, but only with the understanding that the reporter could not reproduce or rebroadcast the images. The journalist had to make a decision: Do I agree to that condition and get to see evidence that no other reporter has seen of Obama meeting with Palestinian Americans? Or do I insist on a full public release of the video, with the likely outcome that the source would share nothing?
Wallsten pushed for the release of the video but when the source would not agree, Wallsten agreed to accept more limited access to the recording. He agreed not to reveal his source nor share the video with anyone else.
The net result: The world got a story that showed Obama the political operator, sliding between two opposite and highly contentious worlds. The audience did not get to view the video, but it got far more than it had without The Times’ reporting. That's the nature of some journalistic negotiations; giving up the perfect to obtain the very good.
The Obama camp loathed the story, because it could be interpreted as showing the future president as a chameleon; siding with whatever group he happened to be sitting with at any moment in time.
(A footnote: Wallsten wrote a few other stories for The Times in the 2008 cycle that were widely loathed by Team Obama. One showed the former state senator to be perfectly comfortable, thank you, in the bare-knuckle world of Chicago politics. Another suggested that some colleagues in community organizing felt Obama snagged too much credit for projects they helped make happen. If any reporter did not buy in to Obama hagiography four years ago, it was Wallsten.)
This fine reporter, who has moved on to the Washington Post, has long since stopped answering questions about the video. There is nothing to be gained in talking about a story published four years ago. It speaks for itself and it surely does not speak in a way that Obama fans appreciate. Public discussions about arrangements with a source can only lead to trouble, even inadvertent betrayal, and Wallsten has wisely avoided those pitfalls.
The ultimate irony of the Khalidi video furor: The world would not even know about the video and would certainly know much less about Obama’s political maneuvering without the dogged reporting of Peter Wallsten. The paper put the story on Page One, hiding right in plain sight, this dark, dark political secret.
For that, the thanks the newspaper gets is regular recriminations and conspiracy-mongering — often from people who don’t have the dimmest notion what the “Khalidi tape” really is. It’s fascinating to read the accounts by Internet chatterboxes who just know that lurking within the video are all the most nefarious secrets of Comrade Obama.
The conspiracy theory mushrooms, in part, around the presence of one-time Weather Underground radical William Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, around the Khalidi farewell proceedings. Another news report about the Khalidi going-away party said Ayers and Dohrn had signed a “commemorative book” for the Mideast scholar. That story did not make clear whether the lefties were at the party or signed the book at some other time.
It’s obvious why the Khalidi tape has soared to the forefront of the conservative consciousness this week. There had to be some counterpunch to the devastating video, released this week, showing Mitt Romney talking disdainfully of the 47% of Americans whom he described as “victims,” stuck on the government dole and with little intention of improving their lots in life.
A better rebuttal than trying to explain the “47%” video: Find some alternative images to soak up the media's attention. Better yet, raise the specter of the secret video that surely would be the president's undoing.
Online in the last 24 hours, true believers have suggested that $100,000 is not enough — that Donald Trump should offer $5 million. Surely, the video would materialize. It would contain not only Ayers, but probably images of America-hating Obama pastor Jeremiah Wright or, gosh, maybe Israel-loathing Louis Farrakhan or (why not?) shots of a ghostly Saul Alinsky, the left-wing organizer. The mind reels at all the radical associations surely proven in that one hidden recording.
Of course, anyone in the reporting business would like to see more information about the candidates. And this bit of historical video would add another brick in the wall of understanding about who Barack Obama is. Who knows, the original owner of the tape may even one day bow to the profit motive.
What the reward-hucksters fail to recognize, though, is that real journalists don’t take payoffs to betray sources. Wallsten and The Times came to an agreement to obtain information. That agreement led to greater public knowledge about candidate Obama; indeed, it led to the knowledge that there even existed a Khalidi tape.
The conspiracy theorists seem to think The Times holds the video with relish. Perhaps the staff gathers for a nightly viewing parties, chortling with glee as we watch a band of unreformed leftists, say, smoking the hookah with the future president.
To be clear: No reporter at The Times or any other self-respecting journalism outlet is going to sell out an agreement with a source. Not for $100,000. Not for $5 million. Not for any amount.
Anyone that did would have their money. And a reputation worth exactly one plug nickel.
MORE COMMENTARY FROM JAMES RAINEY:
Fox’s alternate universe on Romney coverage
Rush Limbaugh discovers another left-wing plot that isn’t
Vanity Fair’s Michael Lewis admires fellow writer named Obama