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The Nonsense Quandary   

How should news organizations deal with phenomena like the “birther” brouhaha? Posted: Thurs, April 28, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It's easy to understand why President Barack Obama is exasperated by the controversy that won't die about where he was born. And by the fact that the mainstream media have been paying any attention to the faux kerfuffle at all, since the facts have been clear for quite some time.

And while Obama was wrong to suggest the nonstory had in fact become "the dominant news story," as statistics from the Project for Excellence in Journalism make clear, there's no doubt it began to get more attention from news outlets as the noted carnival barker Donald Trump hammered away at it relentlessly.

Which spotlights a vexing question for journalists: How do you deal with such fringe issues, particularly as, regardless of their validity, they become increasingly less fringe?

The answer: There may not be a good answer.

In prehistoric times, in an innocent age before the Internet, smartphones and Katy Perry, this was a no-brainer. A handful of elite news organizations – the top newspapers, the networks – decided what was news and what wasn't.

Everyone else pretty much followed their lead. If something seemed bogus, at least by the conventional wisdom of the day, it wasn't likely to see the light of day.

This system had its obvious drawbacks, since the conventional wisdom is so often wrong. Nobody had died and made this handful of bigfoot news executives Socrates. Important stories could take an awfully long time to surface. But on the flip side, it often buried pernicious nonsense.

There's no reason to debate the merits of this profoundly undemocratic news framework, since it is gone as irretrievably as Elvis. In the world of Web sites, talk radio and cable news, pretty much anyone and anything can find an audience. Which is, like so many things, both good and bad.

For a long time the notion that Obama hadn't been born in the USA – and was thus an illegitimate president – was largely confined to the Web sites and talkmeisters of the far right. But despite the lack of any evidence to suggest it was true, it continued to simmer, thanks to a base of true believers who truly detest the president.

So what should responsible news organizations do in such a case? It's tempting to say, "Ignore the damn thing." That would have worked fine years ago. But there was little doubt that the "birther movement," like it or not, was part of the political landscape. Pretending it wasn't there wouldn't make it go away.

So on to Plan B: Don't treat it like classic political set-to – birther queen Orly Taitz says X, Obama spokesman says it's rubbish – and call it a day. Instead, act like a real journalist, figure out where the truth lies and issue a verdict.

And that's what FactCheck.org did: 32 months ago!

Its findings: "FactCheck.org staffers have now seen, touched, examined and photographed the original birth certificate. We conclude that it meets all of the requirements from the State Department for proving U.S. citizenship. Claims that the document lacks a raised seal or a signature are false. We have posted high-resolution photographs of the document as 'supporting documents' to this article. Our conclusion: Obama was born in the U.S.A. just as he has always said."

Other news outlets engaged in similar debunking.

So that should settle it, right?

Not in today's brutally polarized political world, where the old journalistic quip "don't let the facts get in the way of a good story" holds sway.

The subject not only never went away, it resurfaced with a vengeance in Donald Trump's recent run-up (or not) to a presidential campaign. Sadly, Trump found the issue had traction with a certain portion of the Republican electorate, and he catapulted into the front ranks of the GOP contenders (a low bar, to be sure, but still).

Both Trump's perhaps-candidacy and the maybe-not-even-a-stake-through-its-heart-will-kill-it birther issue attracted media attention. And how could they not? The media don't get to pick who is and who isn't taken seriously as a candidate these days.

And the polls showed that nearly three years after FactCheck.org's takedown, an astonishing number of Americans had doubts about Obama's citizenship.

So Obama, in a moment crystallizing how bankrupt our nation's politics has become, felt compelled to release the birthers' holy grail, the "long form" birth certificate. Which, go figure, showed exactly what the short form revealed: The dude is an American.

And overnight polling and instant react suggested that the document had hardly put an end to the "controversy."

So what's the lesson for journalists? In part it's a humbling reminder of the limits of their power.

When it was clear way back in 2009 that its reporting had hardly put an end to birthermania, I asked FactCheck.org's director, Brooks Jackson, what he made of that.

"We do it for those who care," he replied. "We can't change human nature."

He may have been on to something.

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