They’re a sufficiently soft target that sometimes piling on seems unsporting, but Alex Massie Knapp’s circuitous philosophical “defense” of the Birthers reminds me that it’s not so much what they don’t know that marks them as loons—it’s what they know that ain’t so. Sure, it’s sort of cranky—skepticism beyond the bounds of the reasonable—to keep demanding evidence after seeing the Honolulu Advertiser birth announcement and Obama’s own, unprecedented release of a state-issued “certification of live birth,” which before the rise of Birtherism would have been referred to as a “copy of his birth certificate” by any normal person. But hey in itself, thinking presidential candidates ought to have to make their original, long-form birth certificates public is at most mildly paranoid. The Constitution doesn’t specify any particular mechanism for enforcing the “natural born citizen” clause, and as long as we’re keeping that requirement around, that’s as good a way to do it as any—if only to preempt nonsense like this next time around.
The really nuttiness comes not from their excess of skepticism, but from their conspicuously asymmetrical lack of skepticism about an array of claims that are easily, manifestly disproven. After all, previous presidents didn’t generally publish their birth certificates either—not even short-form copies!—so any pretense that it’s necessary now for reasons more respectable than “he’s colored folk, with a funny name!” needs to be grounded in some cause for doubt. Otherwise, the question isn’t whether Obama’s birthplace can be conclusively proven—and for people who think the president is prepared to resort to forgery, it’s hard to imagine what would qualify—but why we’d hold him to a higher standard than the other 42 guys to take the oath. And what’s striking is that all the reasons you routinely see cited for demanding extra evidence aren’t just spurious, they’re the type of screaming-bogosity that anyone who cared to Google would find proven conclusively false in a second. It’s downright bizarre that you still see people claiming, for instance, that Obama’s step-grandmother said he was born in Kenya when the Birthers’ own recording plainly has her saying precisely the opposite. You still see people parroting claims about supposed problems with the original, low-res copy of the birth certificate posted on the Web—raised seals and signatures and so on—when high res images of the same document, debunking all those claims beyond any reasonable doubt, appeared on the Net a year ago. The weird thing isn’t so much that people cling to their conspiracy theories in the face of countervailing evidence, it’s that they keep parroting the old claims without showing any sign that they’re aware of the countervailing evidence, even if only to make some lame attempt to explain it away. Either it’s dropped down the memory hole or somehow—despite obvious interest in the issue—they’ve just never encountered evidence that readily appears atop any search on the relevant terms.
Probably it’s a bit of each, but I think this is a natural side-effect of a media ecosystem where a small but nontrivial group of people think World Net Daily is a serious credible news source, while CNN and The New York Times run nothing but propaganda. This is ludicrous, of course, but once you start down that dark path, it’s hard to see how you’d break out of it. If you lack any direct experience with national politics, your only benchmark for assessing the credibility of a news source is… other news sources. The Internet worsens the matter by creating mutually reinforcing alternative ecosystems: Pam Geller validates WND validates Newsbusters in a closed loop of crazy—and all of them validate the notion that actually-reputable outlets are not only tainted by liberal bias, but effectively equivalent to Pravda or Iranian state TV. When the fringe story finally starts breaking into mainstream outlets, alas, the reaction only seems to confirm this view: Birthers are painted as crazy—and some of them surely are—but many of them are presumably just more-or-less sane people with crazy beliefs stuck in an epistemic loop. And when the mainstream dismisses their alternative ecosystem as not merely erroneous but nutty, that reinforces the perception of bias. Having believed the Birther claims—or at least taken them seriously—denizens of that ecosystem face a choice between shutting out inconvenient facts or endorsing a view of themselves as gullible, racist, or loony.
One possible takeaway from this is that mainstream outlets may want to reconsider the point at which it’s worth taking up and debunking these sorts of fringe ideas, even at the risk of giving them undeserved exposure. The pattern we’re seeing in the new media environment is that these conspiracy theories end up getting pretty wide exposure anyway, but only taken up by real journalists once there’s a core group who can’t be disabused of their false beliefs without fairly serious threat to their self images, which is the worst of both worlds. The kooky ideas don’t end up being contained by major media’s refusal to take note of them, and the debunking is less effective when they do.
Addendum: Commenter Steve suggests that journalistic norms of objectivity may actually contribute to the problem, which I think makes a fair amount of sense if you think about it. If you’re going to do the sort of faux even-handed “he said/she said” coverage that passes for “objective reporting,” then it’s just a no-brainer that you don’t want to touch these nutty stories. Even if you do ultimately present all the relevant facts, to present the question of Obama’s birth as some sort of genuine debate or controversy with two prima facie credible “sides,” you’re already going way too far in the direction of legitimizing this sort of craziness. You do not put someone on CNN for five minutes to rant about how Jews drink the blood of infant goys on Purim, even if you then allocate another five minutes to someone who points out that this is an insane, despicable fabrication. On the other hand, it cuts against that he-said-she-said instinct, not to mention fears of being labeled as Obama’s PR team, to just do a straight debunking story explaining why, factually, this is a nutty theory premised on plain falsehoods. We are starting to see that now, but it’s a conspicuous departure from that familiar forced equivalence.