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Why All the Birther Attention Now?

Why All the Birther Attention Now?

By David Paul Kuhn - July 31, 2009

Am I the only one who finds it odd that the media is paying exponentially more attention to the "birther" issue today than during the campaign? There was reason to ignore conspiracy theories during the campaign. There were a great deal of lies flying around about Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008 (there were a few flying around about John McCain and Sarah Palin as well).

But the treatment of the "birthers" is peculiar. I went on Nexis and did a search of the broad "news" category of the phrase: "birth certificate" and Obama. In the past month there were 564 pieces on the subject (302 in the past week alone!). That is more than half of all the pieces on the subject written before Election Day 2008, which totaled 1,051. Major broadcast outlets from MSNBC to National Public Radio have devoted hours of coverage to the subject in the past week.

I don't think the subject should have been covered more during the campaign. But it's hard to argue that the media should be covering it more now. One cannot overestimate how many activist conservative blogs were blowing up with this issue in 2008, and the media largely did not cover it.

Some backstory. Before the birth certificate issue was substantially fact checked by a major media outlet, one of my editors and I noticed how much this issue was in the blogosphere. Being that I was the chief political writer for CBSnews.com during "Memogate" or "Rathergate"--when conservative bloggers correctly called out false memos critical of President George W. Bush and featured on "60 Minutes"--I'd witnessed the costs of ignoring blogosphere outcries the hard way. By 2008, I worked for Politico, and early on I went to the library to verify whether there was some birth announcement (it was there). So I explored the issue, and so did other reporters. Politico never did the story during the campaign because there was no story.

Why, then, all the attention now? I've seen the footage of the congressman asked about the birth certificate during a town hall meeting. I've seen the footage of the other conservative representatives asked about it on the Hill. But I don't think that justifies the outsized coverage of late.

Consider that health care reform, what is likely the signature piece of legislation of Barack Obama's presidency, is on the rocks. Secondly, we just had one of the most significant debates about race in American life in some time. Then there are those wars, the economy, spending bills, matters like that.

Meanwhile, incidents like this (and I mean the outsized coverage) do seem to justify conservative charges of bias. Is there an unintentional effort, perhaps intentional in some corners of the partisan press, to portray Republicans and conservatives as a bunch of kooks? Well, one should never presume motives.

But I do think the drumming coverage blends a conservative fringe group with conservatives and Republicans. It seems fair to say that, by consequence, much of the media is characterizing conservatives as a bit loony with this exaggerated "birther" storyline.

Both sides have their ideological fringe. Party flanks tend to believe their passions despite the facts. But the mainstream media did not, to the same degree, discuss the conspiracy theorists that believed Bush and Cheney were behind the 9/11 attacks, in order to justify an invasion for oil, in the context of liberals or Democrats.

Sure, many of the stories on the "birthers" carry the disclaimer. Chris Matthews, who I say does the best political TV despite his failings, called this group the "whacko wing of your party." In other words, he's saying the issue does not involve the entire Republican Party. But the disclaimers do not quite work. It's like doing a movie where black people are all the criminals and then adding the token good black cop to offset the stereotype.

Conservatives often think of liberal media bias in a top-down frame. But most of the time there isn't some big man calling down to reporters and broadcasters and telling them to do this or that story to nail conservatives (though that may happen on occasion). Instead, what happens could be more accurately described as a bottom up bias created by groupthink. Most reporters are cut from the same cloth--they live in cities or urbane inner-suburbs, are motivated by the same ideals, and like most professors most are not terribly well paid but are very well educated--and this can sometimes produce a collective bias. The outsized "birther" coverage feels like a case of that bias.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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