How the Media Fan the Flames of “Birtherism”
Why does the persistence of the birther falsehood reflect a failure of the mainstream media?
- The timidity of the mainstream media is partially to blame for the resilience of birtherism.
- The mainstream media's handling of birtherism displays a misguided adherence to journalistic balance.
- When covering an issue skewed by one side clinging to outlandish views that are demonstrably false, simple journalistic balance is unacceptable.
- Coverage that is insufficiently critical lends legitimacy to the false assertions.
- Reporting on birtherism without a consistent emphasis on rebutting false claims constitutes an abdication of journalistic responsibility.
Despite an avalanche of evidence proving President Obama was born in Hawaii, “birtherism” — the unfounded smear that the president is ineligible to hold office because he was not born in the United States — is making a resurgence.
Consider the results of a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, which found that one in four Americans incorrectly believe the president was born overseas. Incredibly, the figure spikes to 45% among Republicans — and an additional 22% of Republicans are unsure as to where the president was born.
Indeed, the issue has become such a distraction that more than 27 months after he assumed office, President Obama felt compelled to take the extraordinary step of releasing his long-form birth certificate in an attempt to placate critics. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to change the fact that the birther issue has become a focal point in the jockeying for the GOP presidential nomination.
Its outsized influence in the contest has given rise to a spate of analyses exploring what birtherism augurs for the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes. However, a more important question may be what the persistence of the falsehood more than two years into Obama’s presidency reveals about the media.
Failure of the mainstream media
It is painfully evident that the timidity of the mainstream media is partially to blame for the resilience of birtherism.
The media must walk a fine line between ignoring the smear, thereby possibly allowing it to fester — and fanning the flames by providing a megaphone through which birthers can disseminate their nonsense unchallenged. It is clear the media are erring on the side of the latter — and are therefore doing more harm than good by covering the issue.
Take the embarrassing interview CNN’s John King recently conducted with Orly Taitz, a leader of the birther movement. Mr. King allowed his guest to dominate the conversation and put up only a modicum of resistance to her fusillade of falsehoods. Most glaringly, he failed to call her assertions what they really are: unfounded smears. As he cut away to commercial, Mr. King tried to preempt criticism of the segment — an indication that he realized he had botched the interview by being insufficiently critical of Ms. Taitz’s claims.
Also consider a recent NBC Nightly News segment in which reporter Mike Viqueira, in a misplaced nod to journalistic balance, referred to Donald Trump’s “controversial views on President Obama’s birth.” His birther views aren’t merely controversial — they’re demonstrably false. Mr. Viqueira’s statement is as ridiculous as if he had referred to “the controversial view that the sun rises in the west.”
Yet another example of the mainstream media’s mishandling of birtherism is a recent Politico article that examined the origins of the falsehood. While the reporters went to great lengths to point out that birtherism has no basis in reality, they insisted on drawing a false equivalence between birthers on the right and “truthers” on the left. While birthers constitute a near-majority of the Republican electorate, truthers — a fringe element that believes the Bush administration was complicit in the September 11 terrorist attacks — have never exerted anywhere near a comparable influence on Democrats.
However, in an effort to appear balanced, the reporters proffered an obscure poll from 2006 — undoubtedly an outlier — that showed a majority of Democrats believed the Bush administration played a role in the attacks. In so doing, they gave readers the false impression that birtherism is just another example of the political bickering that takes place on both sides. In reality, it is a symptom of a Republican Party that is becoming increasingly estranged from the “sensible center” of American politics.
Amid such misguided reporting, there has indeed been some laudable coverage of birtherism in the mainstream media. On the whole, however, the mainstream media’s handling of birtherism displays a misguided adherence to the concept of journalistic balance. This is precisely why prominent birthers like Donald Trump and Orly Taitz see a benefit in taking their case to the John Kings and Meredith Vieiras of the world.
Reporting on the “controversy” is good for ratings and readership figures. However, doing so without a consistent emphasis on forcefully rebutting false claims constitutes an abdication of journalistic responsibility — as does portraying birtherism as an issue well inside the bounds of normal political dialogue. Such coverage allows those promoting extreme, demonstrably incorrect views to hijack the debate — thereby debasing the entire political discourse.
Perhaps most troubling, coverage that is insufficiently critical lends legitimacy to the false assertions by making it all too easy for the casual observer to infer that if there’s smoke, there’s fire. After all, the average viewer or reader might think, if the rumors were completely unsubstantiated, the media wouldn’t be reporting on them at all.
Sharing the blame
This is not to say that the mainstream media are entirely to blame for the persistence of the birther lie. Indeed, much of the fault lies with alternative media sources such as blatantly biased Fox News and the fever swamps of talk radio. Unencumbered by facts or journalistic ethics, they have done much to fan the flames.
Also, the Republican Party’s congressional leadership has failed to actively discourage fellow Republicans from perpetuating the smear. They apparently see a political advantage in keeping birtherism alive.
In addition, even if Fox News, every talk radio host and all elected Republicans disowned the lie, some Americans despise President Obama to such a degree that they would still believe it.
The media’s responsibility
However, if the mainstream media are intent on seeking viewers and readers by chasing the “bright shiny object” that is birtherism, they have a responsibility to do so in a manner that doesn’t harm the overall political discourse.
The media struggled with this concept in their reporting on President Obama’s healthcare overhaul, which was distorted by Sarah Palin’s “death panel” lie. Likewise, coverage of climate change is corrupted by a tendency to consider both sides of the debate equally valid, which ignores the fact that an overwhelming scientific consensus exists in support of the view that global warming is real and is caused by humans.
Ultimately, when covering an issue skewed by one side clinging to outlandish views that are demonstrably false, simple journalistic balance is unacceptable. The media must challenge the falsehoods in terms that are every bit as forceful and unequivocal as the misconceptions are ridiculous.
Only then will the media’s reporting on these fake controversies cease to do more harm than good.
Editor’s Note: This feature was updated on April 27, 2011.