Behind the “Birther Movement”

Right-wing talking heads cynically perpetuate lunatic Obama myths, observes Sam Fulwood III. Have pity on the far, far right, but condemn those who know better.

President Barack Obama speaks about health care from the Diplomatic Room of the White House. (AP/Alex Brandon)
President Barack Obama speaks about health care from the Diplomatic Room of the White House. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Poor Rep. Mike Castle never saw it coming and had nothing to say. The Delaware moderate Republican congressman fixed a Bambi-in-the-headlights gaze on his face when the flag-waving woman in red whipped an otherwise unremarkable town hall meeting into a display of mass insanity.

Like others sharing her corner of the far-far-right lunatic fringe, the woman in red belongs to the “birther movement,” an ad hoc group of skeptics who passionately believe that President Barack Obama isn’t a “natural born citizen,” and as such, is constitutionally unqualified to sit in the Oval Office. Or, as this sad and misguided woman shouted to Castle, “He’s not an American citizen; he’s a citizen of Kenya.”

Watching Castle try to retain his dignity and set the woman straight made me feel sorry for him because he completely lost control of the situation. Truth be told, it was his own fault because Castle clearly isn’t monitoring the avatars of the right—the entertainers posing as authoritative journalists on radio and cable television chat shows.

And that’s why Castle was blindsided. None of this would have happened if Castle paid more attention to right-wing taking heads such as Liz Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and, most significantly, CNN’s daily afternoon talker Lou Dobbs—all of whom have given the birther movement a media-endorsed fig leaf to hide its naked ignorance.

This is where my pity ends and my outrage rises to fever pitch. It’s one thing for an ill-informed person to express an opinion—even if she does so at a community forum in front of a congressman and video cameras. There’s no law against public ignorance, nor should there be.

But it’s wholly another matter for putatively respected journalists and their media employers to seize upon flat-earth theorists and pretend as if Internet-fed paranoia holds any credibility. It doesn’t, and they know it doesn’t.

Early into my nearly three-decade career as a newspaper reporter and editor, I learned that the profession’s first and highest responsibility was to sort fact from fiction and to share the truth with the public. If this process breaks down, nobody in a self-governing democracy is well served.

I learned such lessons in a time when newspapers and the late Walter Cronkite were the daily (often, in some communities, the only) arbiters of community news and decision making. It was a time before the explosion of Internet sites and cable news outlets that compete with each other for a share of public attention. In their mad scramble and sophomoric hijinks to collect eyeballs and webpage hits, talk show hosts replaced news judgment with gross entertainment.

Stand-up acts such as Dobb’s nativist rants or Limbaugh’s mildly veiled racism aren’t intended to inform. They’re cynically designed to feed an appetite among a small but vocal segment of Americans who seek affirmation for their marginal opinions. If a monster lie is posted on a website and gets circulated on right-wing talk radio, then that whopper develops a life of its own. It becomes a deeply held truth among the faithful simply because they need proof to back up their nutty beliefs and it can be found nowhere else.

All this becomes a self-fulfilling circle. Credible news organizations—the mainstream media, in the parlance of the disbelievers—can’t be trusted because they’re not reporting the truth. Only those who listen to Liz or Rush or Lou are clued in to what’s really going down in America.

The right-wing talking heads understand this. Surely, they’re too smart to believe the hype themselves, but they’re devious enough not to refute the callers who raise the question. That’s what earns their audiences—and enormous salaries.

Indeed, they know very well that if you amuse your audience, you’re less likely to bore them and they’ll keep on listening and watching. Hence, you have the pathetic spectacle of Lou Dobbs going on his CNN show to raise questions about whether the president is legitimately elected. He seemingly contradicted the extensive reporting done by far more careful reporters and broadcast days earlier—not only on the same network but on his own show!

Such absurdity is most likely the reason CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein last week called a halt to the network’s continuing commentary on the birther nonstory. Klein declared the story “dead” in a memo sent to CNN staffers on Thursday, effectively ordering an end to the network’s embarrassment.

Or is it? Klein seemed to backtrack on his no-more birther memo. A Saturday Los Angeles Times story reported Klein’s support for Dobbs and apparently granted him permission to continue his foolish quest to pester President Obama about his long-form birth certificate. Hawaii officials say the state destroyed the long-form, paper birth certificates for all residents in 2001, transferring the documents to electronic files.

Klein was satisfied with that explanation, telling staffers in his memo that “It seems to definitively answer the question … And then it seems this story is dead—because anyone who still is not convinced doesn’t really have a legitimate beef.”

But then he reversed himself in the Los Angeles Times interview. Could it be that Klein doesn’t want the story to die a deserved death because he knows that controversy draws an audience?

To make the circle complete, "The Daily Show" and Jon Stewart, a comedian pretending to be a news anchor, made an extended joke of it all. Sadly, that’s why so many young Americans tune their televisions to Comedy Central get the news.

Perhaps Rep. Castle will become a regular Stewart watcher. Or perhaps he’ll realize he has to watch the right-wing blabbers to prepare for his next town hall meeting—the better to prepare for another lunatic question from far-right conservatives who might attend the meeting. At worst, he won’t look so surprised and, at best, he’ll have something honest—and funny—to tell the woman in red.

Sam Fullwood III is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow