Conservatives Pounce On Michelle Obama: Meningitis Remarks A Lie?

(CBS)
It seemed to be a perfect example of a tasteless political fib: Michelle Obama invoking a heart-wrenching but untrue story about her daughter Sasha's medical woes.

A conservative blogger concluded: "Today Mrs. Obama says (Sasha) was four months old but fortunately did not have meningitis. Yet just eight days ago her husband said she was three months old and was diagnosed with meningitis." One blog used the opportunity to reprint the Obama-as-Joker photo, HotAir.com called it "serious incompetence" on the Obamas' part, it appeared on Breitbart.tv, and the crowd over at FreeRepublic.com dubbed the president a "chronic liar."

There's just one problem with this nice little gotcha story. There's no evidence that either Obama lied.

Let's start at the beginning. On September 10, Barack Obama gave a speech saying: "our youngest daughter, Sasha, was diagnosed with meningitis when she was just three months old" (he used the near-identical line in July and March as well).

By contrast, when Michelle Obama gave a speech about health care a few days later, on September 18, the New York Times' Jeff Zeleny wrote a blog post for the Times' "Prescriptions" blog saying:
In her speech, Mrs. Obama also told the story of how her daughter Sasha would not stop crying when she was 4 months old. A doctor's visit revealed she might have meningitis; she ultimately did not, but the illness produced a scare. (Emphasis added)

If the Times' report had been accurate, one of the Obamas would have been guilty of a lie, or at least a crass political exaggeration. But a copy of Michelle Obama's remarks on WhiteHouse.gov (here's a video) show she never made the no-meningitis claim:
But he told us that she could have meningitis. So we were terrified. He said, get to the emergency room right away. And fortunately for us, things worked out, because she is now the Sasha that we all know and love today.

But for whatever reason, after the juxtaposition of Barack Obama's statements with the New York Times article's claims began -- perhaps on the JammieWearingFool blog -- conservative and even some libertarian bloggers didn't spend much time trying to learn the truth. Michelle Malkin said it was a "contradiction in tale-telling," and LewRockwell.com's Karen De Coster on Monday called it "more Obama (His & Her) Lies," drawing a comparison to Hillary Clinton's exaggerations about "landing under sniper fire" in Bosnia.

To be sure, I'm not saying that conservative bloggers are always fact-challenged or that liberal bloggers are especially virtuous. Nor am I saying that career politicians, even presidents, rarely lie or embellish; both major parties have been infected with that particular disease. (Remember when President Bush claimed that the NSA warrantless surveillance program required a "court order?" Or the how President Obama claimed that illegal aliens would not benefit from any health care changes, even though Democrats had rejected amendments attempting to ensure precisely that?)

Perhaps it's a simple tendency to assume the worst of their political enemies, but whatever the case, the meningitis interlude isn't exactly an example of how online political commentators are trying to seek out the truth. Rather, it shows that even today, a lie can get halfway around the blogosphere before the truth has a chance to turn on, boot up, and log in.

Update 6:35pm ET Tuesday: It appears as though at least one thin-skinned blogger doesn't like it when his mistakes are pointed out. Over at JammieWearingFool, you can see a report saying, incorrectly, that my article didn't mention the New York Times: "This was not part of McCullagh's original report." Of course it was: I haven't updated last night's story until now. After leaving up the incorrect report all day, JammieWearingFool finally sports an update saying "we'll stand corrected on that point" but defending everything else.

On the other hand, Ed Morrissey over at HotAir.com initially made the same allegation and then backed down, saying "I apologize to Declan," which demonstrates a touch of class.

Yet both, oddly, stand by their conclusion that the Obamas told different stories. As far as I can tell, the president said their daughter had meningitis, and the first lady said they suspected meningitis and "things worked out." Where's the contradiction? Now, the Obamas may be wrong on their proposal to give the government more control of our health care system, but evidence of congenital lying this is not.

Declan McCullagh is a correspondent for CBSNews.com. He can be reached at declan@cbsnews.com. You can bookmark the Taking Liberties site here, or subscribe to the RSS feed.
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    Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.

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