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From AJR,   December/January 2011  issue

From the Fringe to the Mainstream   

How “scandals” of dubious validity or relevance end up attracting so much media attention.  Posted:  Wed, Dec. 1 2010


By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.     

Orly Taitz is on the phone, peddling nonsense.

"He cannot be considered a natural-born citizen," she says. "He has refused to provide his original birth certificate. It shows that he has a guilty mind, because he knows that if he did, it would not show him to be a valid citizen."

Taitz, a lawyer and dentist in Orange County, California, is speaking about the president of the United States, Barack Obama. It's an old line, and Taitz has delivered it with conviction and enthusiasm again and again: Obama wasn't born in the U.S., and therefore is ineligible to serve as president. Taitz contends Obama was born abroad — most likely in his father's native Kenya — and that he and his late parents covered up the real circumstances of his birth. Like all committed zealots, she has a ready arsenal of dates, names, facts, near-facts, suspicious coincidences and fill-in-the-blank surmises to bolster her case.

Except that Taitz's allegations — the basis of the so-called "birther" movement — have been repeatedly vetted by news organizations and found to be seriously defective. Officials in Honolulu, where Obama has always said he was born, have produced a copy of Obama's "certificate of live birth" attesting to his arrival there on August 4, 1961. The event is corroborated by the existence of contemporaneous birth announcements published in two Honolulu newspapers. Taitz's legal arguments about Obama's eligibility to serve have been rejected repeatedly. Last year, U.S. District Judge Clay D. Land dismissed a lawsuit Taitz filed in Georgia and said of her claim, "Unlike in Alice in Wonderland, simply saying something is so does not make it so." After Taitz reacted by repeatedly accusing the judge of treason, he fined her $20,000 for misconduct; Taitz's appeal of the fines to the Supreme Court has been denied.

All of which raises a question about the news media: Why does a crank like Taitz rate so much attention in the first place? By her own estimate, Taitz has given more than a thousand interviews to domestic and international news sources over the past two years. Is it any wonder that eight in 10 Americans told the Pew Research Center last year that they were aware of at least some of the birther allegations about Obama?

Every era has flimsy, false or downright fraudulent narratives that gain mainstream credence, or at least mainstream attention. Conspiracy theorists have turned John F. Kennedy's assassination into a cottage industry for nearly 50 years, despite the seemingly exhaustive evidence to the contrary compiled by the Warren Commission. President Ronald Reagan was dogged by suspicions (played out at some length on ABC's "Nightline," among others) that his 1980 presidential campaign conspired with Iran to delay the release of 52 American hostages to prevent an "October surprise" that would have boosted the re-election chances of his Democratic opponent, Jimmy Carter. (Investigations by the House and Senate found no credible evidence to support the conspiracy theory — (see "No October Surprise," March 1993.) President Clinton was beset by all kinds of allegations about his personal behavior. While some of them turned out to be true, others, such as an alleged White House conspiracy to murder presidential aide Vince Foster, turned out to be complete bunk.

But these days, the likes of Taitz and her birther cronies seem much more likely to draw attention in an anything-goes media landscape. Stories that might have been dismissed as marginal or kooky in an earlier age now command serious scrutiny from mainstream news organizations.

Is Obama secretly a Muslim? There's not really anything to suggest he is. Yet 24 percent of Americans believe it, according to a Time magazine poll, thanks to widespread circulation of such allegations. Did Obama's trip to India in early November really cost $200 million a day and involve 34 U.S. warships for security? Well, only if you believe an anonymously sourced account in an Indian newspaper that was picked up by Matt Drudge's Web site and reported unquestioningly by Fox News Channel. Was the federal government planning to form "death panels" to determine how health care resources would be allocated to the elderly in an overhauled health care system? No less than Sarah Palin said so, based on her reading of one aspect of the plan last year.

Recent controversies, based on limited or even distorted evidence, have played out about the community organizing group ACORN, the black political organization New Black Panther Party and Shirley Sherrod, the Department of Agriculture manager who was forced to resign after a misleadingly edited video surfaced.

The phenomenon isn't limited to one side of the political spectrum. President George W. Bush was the subject of plenty of speculative excess, too. Were the terrorist attacks on 9/11 really a hoax staged by Bush to advance his "war on terror"? The much-covered "truther" movement believes so. Did Bush steal the 2004 election with rigged voting machines in Ohio? Or, as some liberals argued, did he win thanks to the media's willingness to trumpet distorted claims about Democrat John Kerry's Vietnam military record by a group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth?

Character assassination is part of the political process, and dealing with it is part of political reporting. Who didn't think Palin's shocking "death panel" claims were newsworthy? It's important that journalists sort out the truth once these reality-free claims work their way into the public debate, as they are likely to do in today's highly charged atmosphere. But the key is to scrutinize them, not to ballyhoo them without digging more deeply. And some that are based on gossamer should be downplayed or ignored. The challenge is figuring out which is which.

Of course, that's not always so easy. When the National Enquirer reported that Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards had had an affair with a campaign videographer, the story was largely ignored by the rest of the media because of its source. The story turned out to be solid. (see Going Respectable?, Summer.)

To be sure, journalists who report on specious or suspect allegations often take care to debunk them or place them in context — many of the stories about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004 noted the group's support of the Bush campaign; others rooted out the historical facts. But as any dictator or shady advertiser knows, repetition of an unsubstantiated claim — even while knocking it down — can legitimize the assertion, or at least sow doubts about what is true. Rather than let the birther story die in the face of facts to the contrary, for example, former CNN host Lou Dobbs continued to cover the "controversy" on his program last year, arguably keeping it alive long after even many of Obama's opponents had dismissed it.

The lesson: It's important to investigate charges, however dubious they seem, once they become part of today's often overheated political conversation. But it's also vital to keep them in perspective, to make sure they don't overshdaow more important matters and to drop them when it's clear they are bogus.

The news media's romance with the fringe may be a stark reflection of how the business has changed in just the past few years. Before there was an Internet, before the explosion of sources of news and commentary, mainstream news organizations could maintain something like a gatekeeper role, downplaying or ignoring stories they deemed unfit for public consumption. Such a paternalistic media culture wasn't all for the better, of course; who knows how many legitimate stories never surfaced because a few media elites decided not to pay attention? In any event, such restraint seems almost impossible now, given the hypercompetitive environment and a minute-to-minute news cycle.

"The mainstream media are alert to, perhaps even fearful about, Web [stories] on issues they have ignored or downplayed," says A.J. "Herb" Linnen, a retired Associated Press reporter who covered the 1960 presidential campaign. "There are people and vested interests who use the Web to disseminate material they know won't get used elsewhere." Linnen recalls that there was extensive media coverage in 1960 about whether Kennedy's Catholic faith would affect his presidency. But more virulent anti-Catholic and racially divisive attacks on Kennedy by the John Birch Society and other right-wing groups were largely ignored. Today, Linnen suggests, such messages would be both easily spread on the Internet and widely reported by news outlets as a result.

Today, too, some of the mainstream media have splintered into partisan camps, making it easier "to launch, give altitude to and keep alive" suspect or barely relevant stories, says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "The idea of gatekeeper journalism is pretty anachronistic now," he says. Instead, he prefers the term "geyser journalism," with stories rumbling around at the lower depths of the Web before bubbling up and bursting into the mainstream through friendly conduits.

The culture of misinformation is often abetted by a lack of accountability. Partisan bloggers are loath to admit that they've ever been wrong about much. It's also rare to hear a correction issued on TV or talk radio. The $200 million-a-day assertion about Obama's India trip was repeated, without challenge, by Rush Limbaugh on his program, and by former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) and host Sean Hannity on Fox News (the White House declined to release a precise figure but said the $200 million figure has "no basis in reality"). And so loaded arguments and tenuous "facts" too often stand uncorrected, supplying a tall tale with what Stephen Colbert long ago dubbed "truthiness."

Which side promotes the more insidious narratives? Depends on whom you ask. Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the conservative Media Research Center, says the left created and perpetuated plenty of questionable theories during George W. Bush's two terms, particularly about the U.S. invasion of Iraq (it was a payoff to Bush's Saudi friends, it was designed to enrich Halliburton, it was revenge for an Iraqi plot to assassinate Bush's father, etc.). The media's leftward drift, he says, is evident in their eagerness to defend Obama against similarly specious stories. Graham notes that CNN sent reporters to Indonesia in 2007 to refute a conservative magazine's story that Obama was educated in a Muslim religious school as a teenager. Would CNN have expended similar resources if a conservative's background was being questioned? he asks. "The [story assignment] depends on whose ox is being gored," he says.

But Ari Rabin-Havt, vice president of research for the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, says conservatives have a highly refined media assembly line for manufacturing scandal and partisan outrage. Stories that start with a few influential bloggers (Rabin-Havt cites Jim Hoft of Gateway Pundit, Alex Jones of Infowars.com and a related radio program, and anti-Islamist blogger Pamela Geller as particularly influential) get amplified by Matt Drudge's heavily visited Web site and talk-radio programs hosted by Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and others. The last and most important stage, according to Rabin-Havt, is when Fox News picks up the story. "Fox is the gold standard," he says, because of its visibility and its devoted following among conservatives. "The question is, does [the story] break out of Fox News" and into the rest of the mainstream news media?

The answer: Not always. Some scandals (or "scandals") never gain enough oxygen from the mainstream media and die. Social conservatives, for instance, have clamored for the removal of Kevin Jennings, an openly gay educator whom Obama appointed last year as his "safe schools" czar at the Department of Education. Fox's Hannity has repeatedly denounced Jennings as a "radical" who once pushed for the introduction of "sexually explicit" material in schools and criticized Jennings because he did not contact authorities about a teenage boy who had confided that he was having sex with an older man. But the story never got much traction elsewhere. Jennings remains in his job, and Hannity seems to have moved on.

Rabin-Havt thinks that the media's willingness to pick up certain stories — he mentions the Sherrod case — is less about ideological affinity than about a news culture that rewards being first instead of being right. "The thinking [in newsrooms] is, 'It looks like it's going to be hot, so we better cover it,'" he says. "'We'd better go to air in the next two minutes, or get up a blog post right now and get all the traffic.'" While most journalists are "diligent and professional," he says, "the definition of journalism has changed. Newsroom budgets are shrinking, and there isn't the same ability to check things out all the time. [Good journalism] takes time and effort and a lot of money."

Sometimes, a few events can line up just right to turn the seemingly innocuous into the incendiary. That is surely the story of last summer's great national controversy, the fight over an Islamic community center and mosque to be built two blocks from the World Trade Center site. But for a few lucky twists, the story might have stayed below the media's radar. And for a long time it did.

The saga began quietly enough when an Islamic religious group purchased the site of a shuttered Burlington Coat Factory store in July 2009 and told city officials about its plans. It wasn't until five months later that the New York Times reported on the proposal in a mostly sympathetic page-one piece. The December 2009 story described the development as "an Islamic center near the city's most hallowed piece of land that would stand as one of ground zero's more unexpected and striking neighbors."

Although conservative bloggers like Geller picked up the story, the Times' account was largely ignored by the mainstream media. The project's next milestone came in early May, when a lower Manhattan community board unanimously approved it at a meeting — one in which no one spoke in opposition. The decision rated just a short news story inside New York's Daily News.

But Geller kept at it. On her blog, Atlas Shrugs, she was not nearly as dainty as the New York Times in describing the project. Among other things, she called it "a mega mosque," "a monster mosque" and a "mosque to be built just steps from Ground Zero where Muslim terrorists murdered 2,751 people in the name of Allah." (Critics point to such fiery rhetoric as proof that Geller is an Islamophobe; Geller says she's opposed only to radical Islam, not the practice of the religion per se.)

Perhaps more important, she and others began referring to the project as the "mosque at Ground Zero," a coinage that became critical in framing the issue in subsequent media accounts. The phrase isn't entirely accurate, but it packs a much more powerful punch than the bland ways its backers have described it — as a community center that would include a 500-seat performing arts venue, library, restaurant, swimming pool and prayer space two blocks south of where the towers once stood. (Geller says the building is part of the "Ground Zero attack site" because it was hit by wreckage from one of the planes on 9/11.) The more provocative term eventually proved irresistible to the news media. The phrase appeared on the cover of Newsweek in August over a shot of the ruined and still-smoldering towers.

But it took another seminal event to turn the once obscure proposal into a megastory. On June 6, Geller and Robert Spencer, another anti-Islamist blogger and author, organized a rally to oppose the development. The event attracted a large crowd — Geller says as many as 10,000 people turned out — but again drew little media attention. Only two domestic news organizations, CNN and Newsday, bothered to cover it, and both did so briefly, according to a Nexis search.

The turning point may have been an e-mail containing links to photos of the rally. It's not clear who originated the e-mail, whose subject line was "Mystery Rally," but it soon went viral, pinging around electronic mailboxes from coast to coast. "I was getting it six times a day," Geller says. "Media people were getting it, too. That's when [the media] had to talk about it, when it became a glaring omission not to talk about it."

And so if not for a single, anonymous e-mail, one of the most intensely debated and ardently covered stories of the year might not have existed. Despite criticism that the issue was inflamed by conservatives like herself, Geller says the story is an object lesson in the deficiencies of the news media: "I think the mainstream press is completely out of touch with people. This is the first story that was No. 1 nationally and internationally without mainstream coverage. The American people drove this story. [The media] had to play catch-up. The more people found out about this, the more they were enraged by it."

There may be another lesson in this episode for the media: Be wary of voices like Geller's, but don't dismiss them altogether. Brian Levin, who teaches criminal justice and is director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, says the mainstream media often ignore or are uninformed about Muslim extremism, leaving a vacuum that people like Geller fill. "We don't want [Islamophobes] breaking these stories, because they can easily distort them or take them out of context," he says. When people like Geller and Spencer are setting the agenda, they have the opportunity to "take a kernel of truth and use it as a flamethrower to firebomb their readers with conclusions that are materially false and dangerous."

Yet he says there are radicals in some Islamic community groups, and the media need to be vigilant. "I think the mainstream media is afraid to go after Muslim extremists for fear of being labeled Islamophobic," Levin says.

Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism says sorting out the facts is getting harder when news organizations prefer focusing on colorful characters and impassioned arguments over tough, laborious and fair-minded reporting. But arguing is no substitute for journalism's basic function. "What are we in business for?" the former Boston Globe media writer and ombudsman asks rhetorically. "We're in the business to tell people what's real and what's not. I know it sounds a little arrogant, but our job, whenever possible, is to tell them the truth."

A valuable calling, now more than ever.