The Conspiracy Nuts Take Over

Media figures and even elected representatives are feeding false claims by fringe groups instead of preventing them from polluting public discourse, write Eric Alterman and Mickey Ehrlich.

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Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) has admitted that she believes Barack Obama was legitimately elected to the presidency, yet she was caught on tape Labor Day weekend telling a birther, "I agree with you, but the courts don't." (AP/Tom Uhlman)
Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) has admitted that she believes Barack Obama was legitimately elected to the presidency, yet she was caught on tape Labor Day weekend telling a birther, "I agree with you, but the courts don't." (AP/Tom Uhlman)

The Van Jones contretemps is over and Mr. Jones is now a private citizen. On his way out the White House door he was defended by The Nation and Arianna Huffington. However, the facts relating to his past statement, including one in which he termed himself a “communist,” and about his association with a distracting group of conspiracy theorists who make outrageous claims about the “true” story of the September 11 attacks are available to all.

Truthers, as they are known, have attracted understandable ire from pundits and politicians. Laura Ingraham has called them “insane” and Bill Clinton has called them “idiots.” Because rejection of the truthers has been so consistently bipartisan, it is easy to see why Mr. Jones’s association with the group would spark so much fear and outrage. The rejection of the theses and hypotheses of the truthers should mean an effort to prevent parades of malicious rumor and distortions of facts from becoming part of legitimate discourse.

We wish we could say the same about those folks who believe it is their duty to perpetuate lies about Barack Obama. But ever since the 2008 campaign, the president has faced accusations that he isn’t an American citizen or that he wasn’t born here and so he is not eligible to be the president. The claim is easily refutable by evidence, but this appears to have precious little effect on those who continue to perpetrate these lies. Because the claim is so obviously untrue, the defense of the birthers’ claims in the media is ipso facto an act of double talk. Either by denial or by omission, pundits and politicians claim that they don’t believe birther accusations. Nonetheless, they stand in alliance with professed birthers, and they defend the conspiracy theorists’ right to free speech by giving them airtime that they don’t deserve. While no one, not even his defenders or even Mr. Jones himself, defends his decision to sign a “truther” petition, apologists for birthers are everywhere.

The godfather of mainstream support for birthers is Lou Dobbs, who has claimed that he doesn’t personally believe Obama isn’t a natural-born citizen, though he continues to put birther theorists on the air. When calls came for Lou Dobbs’s head, Bill O’Reilly came to his defense, saying that the birther claims are “bogus” but that Dobbs has a right to continue to raise these questions. O’Reilly has gone even further to claim that the president fuels the birther movement to make Republicans look crazy.

Glenn Beck, the man credited with claiming Jones’ proverbial scalp, has also said (on his radio show) that birther claims aren’t true. But when Beck was under fire from advertisers for calling the president a racist with a “deep-seated hatred of white people,” a staunch birther named Gary Kreep came to his rescue with the website, which was used as a tool in the campaign against Van Jones.

Glenn Beck’s charge against Van Jones began with articles written for, the website that sponsors the enormous “Where’s the birth certificate?” billboards on display nationwide. (Beck believes, apparently, that “if it wasn’t for Fox or talk radio, we’d be done as a republic,” and has now been graced with his mug on the cover of Time.) Sean Hannity became a birther booster when he reported on an Army Reserve soldier who refused to deploy to Iraq on the basis that the commander in chief hadn’t proven he was an American citizen. In August, Joseph Farrah, the owner of, said, “I could get excited about a Hannity candidacy.” (Meanwhile, according to Politico, Fox had 51 reports on Van Jones, and CNN had 9.)

David Paul Kuhn at attempted evenhandedness by introducing the results of supposed “truther” polls conducted in 2007. His claim is that the same number of Democrats believed that Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance as Republicans believe Obama is not a citizen. However, this comparison doesn’t work. While Bush was handed a memo explaining that Osama bin Laden was determined to attack in the continental United States and decided to go fishing that day, no evidence exists anywhere to dispute Obama’s citizenship.

Jonah Goldberg wrote a comparison of birthers and truthers last week in his column at National Review online. Goldberg presents summaries of both groups’ theories, including the claim that Obama “has at best been selectively forthcoming about his youth.” Goldberg says that he believes neither theory but that birthers make a much more convincing case. He’s wrong, per usual. The fact is, while the conspiracy theories posed by truthers are unconvincing and often morally offensive, there is a great deal about the government’s response of September 11, 2001 that needs to be explained. My guess is that the level of panic and incompetence on the part of the Bush administration was so great that it would not have withstood the sunlight of scrutiny and the media have moved on to other things.

About Obama’s birth, there are no such questions. Indeed, on Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land delivered a stinging rebuke to unofficial birther leader Orly Taitz in a tour de force order throwing out yet another of Taitz’s lawsuits, instructing and warning her that that she could face sanctions if she submits any "similarly frivolous" filings.

More to the point, unlike truthers, birthers have vocal representation in the U. S. Congress. Representatives like Bill Posey (R-FL) and John Campbell (R-CA) have simultaneously denied the birther theories and spurred speculation by introducing legislation requiring that birth certificates be made public by presidents. Representative Jean Schmidt (R-OH) was even caught on tape Labor Day weekend telling a birther, “I agree with you, but the courts don’t.” Ms. Schmidt admitted later on that she did believe that Barack Obama had been legitimately elected to the presidency and that he serves that office legally.

But this is precisely the problem. During that Labor Day anti-Obama rally, Representative Schmidt was placating the fears of a real constituency in the Republican Party. Rather than try to allay this woman’s fear of the president, Schmidt bowed to it and fed into it. After all, as of July, nearly 60 percent of Republicans were unsure or did not believe that Obama was an American citizen.

On balance, we continue to admire Van Jones despite the mistakes he’s made and admitted. It’s too bad, though probably unavoidable, that he won’t be advising the administration on its “green jobs” initiatives. But Jones is a minor player in the larger drama. The important issue here is whether mainstream media can act as an honest broker between truth and lies. It’s not just the birthers. Lies spread about death panels have hijacked the health care debate, probably killing the possibility of a public option and seriously weakening public support for the kind of health care reform that is broadly popular when the truth is told. It’s long past time that honest reporters told the truth about the people purposely polluting our political system for reasons that in many cases defy not only reality but rationality as well.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

Mickey Ehrlich is a freelance writer based in New York.

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Eric Alterman

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