There is no evidence Israel had anything to do with the Sept. 11 attacks. There isn’t a single factoid suggesting Dwight D. Eisenhower was part of a Communist conspiracy, nor is there proof that Elvis Presley today is slinking through the back streets of Steubenville, Ohio.
All these assertions are demonstrably true. Also, all are loony questions, absurd to even ask.
So was the issue of Barack Obama’s birthplace. Yet the president of the United States felt compelled to obtain a 1961 document and hold a White House news conference to reveal what any rational person knew, and what was in the Hawaii newspapers at the time of his birth: He was born in this country.
This raises two questions: should Obama have dignified the fringe conspiracy buffs with a response, and how did the falsehood ever gain any traction?
The birther charade was the province of Internet conspirators and a few television bloviators for several years. This year, some conservatives, at the state and federal level, pushed anew, and serious party leaders, while not embracing it, refuse to denounce these conspiracy peddlers.
In January, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, was asked on television about the birthers, and said he didn’t think it was an issue that “even needs to be on the policymaking table right now whatsoever.” When pressed to denounce those who were perpetrating the conspiracy theory or talk about how crazy it was, he demurred, saying he wasn’t going to “engage in name-calling.”
This spring, would-be Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump made Obama’s citizenship a centerpiece of his publicity stunt, and showed a stunning ability to attract attention with it.
The president said it had dominated coverage two weeks ago, overshadowing important economic and fiscal issues. It really didn’t. In the mainstream media, according to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, it comprised about 4 percent of coverage, much less than the economic story.
And over the past two months, a search in the two most influential political newspapers in America, the New York Times and the Washington Post, turns up dozens of stories, though many were editorials, columns or news stories denouncing the issue.
Still, recent surveys suggest that almost half of Republicans and more than a small number of independents believed the U.S. president really might not be a legitimate citizen. The best explanation, people who study these conspiracy rumors say, is that this is a price of an unfiltered Internet.
‘Giant Rumor Mill’
For all the advantages, the Internet also “serves as a giant rumor mill,” Bruce Bimber, a professor of political science at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Richard Davis, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, have written. “Political candidates,” they add, “can easily become victims of these cybercascades.”
Jodi Dean, a political science professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, says the Internet “lets previously isolated groups gain currency. The wilder the charge, the better it is for them.” And Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, who studies the culture of conspiracies, believes that nutty theories like the birther issue “would surely have never gotten the traction they currently have 25 or 30 years ago.”
The 24/7 cable-television industry feeds on this stuff. MSNBC, the left-wing network, actually broadcast more stories on the birth-certificate affair during the week that Obama had cited, than any other channel. Although almost all of it was meant to debunk the notion, it helped elevate it on the news agenda.
On Fox News, the right-wing cable network, a few prominent commentators dismissed the birther conspiracy as whacky. Others, like Sean Hannity, kept asking, if there was a birth certificate, why doesn’t the White House “just produce it and we move on?”
The fact is that in 2008 Obama did produce what the state of Hawaii certifies as a legitimate birth certificate for passport and other purposes. More recently, he went to the extraordinary lengths of asking the Hawaii Department of Health to release copies of his long-form birth certificate.
By this rationale, one of Hannity’s predecessors a half-century ago, could have asked, “Why doesn’t President Eisenhower release an affidavit swearing that he is not now, nor ever has been, a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy?”
Politicians still question whether Obama was smart to take these unusual steps. One Democratic strategist says the best case is the White House did it to elevate Trump in Republican circles. Sure enough, the Donald afterward was crowing about his great victory.
The news conference, however, did little to mollify the conspiracy theorists, a number of whom seem to despise the first African-American president.
As for Trump, he already has moved on to questioning how Obama, who he charged had a poor record as an undergraduate, got into Harvard Law School. There were clear implications of racial preferences.
Obama graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, was the editor of the Law Review, and later taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. That’s not bad for a guy who didn’t deserve to get into law school in the first place.
Buckley and Russert
There are only limited ways to quell sleazy rumor-mongering that gains traction. It would be nice if we could still rely on figures like the conservative legend William F. Buckley, or the dominant television interrogator Timothy J. Russert, both deceased. Taking a decidedly non Cantor-esque approach in the 1960s, Buckley denounced the right-wing John Birch Society and ran them out of the conservative movement. A half-hour of informed and incisive questioning by Russert would have demolished Trump.
Perhaps another means is ridicule. Instead of asking proponents about the facts, simply inquire, are they investigating the whereabouts of Elvis? Or, as hard as it would be for some in the media, follow the advice of Professor Dean, who suggests, “just don’t pay attention to them.”
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)