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What You Know That Isn’t So

July 29th, 2009 · 19 Comments

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.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Sociology



19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Alex Knapp // Jul 29, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    Thanks for the link, but you got the wrong Alex. I don’t want the birthers thinking that some dirty Brit is making fun of them.

    That said, I think you’re spot on with regards to journalists taking on these conspiracies before they get too ingrained. Otherwise, you end up with the bizarre situation of the birthers claiming that Ann Coulter is “too liberal.” (Seriously, they did just that after she decried them.)

  • 2 steve // Jul 29, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    All true. But there are now apparently members of that mainstream news who are willing to air with less skepticism the questions and concerns of birthers. Lou Dobbs for example has brought it up recently. While it’s certainly possible to say that Dobbs can be taken seriously as a “real journalist”, certainly as an objective one, he isn’t totally outside of any mainstream news medium either.

    That mainstream news organs like CNN allow people, perhaps solely in the interest of appearing fair and “covering all sides”, to air concerns which are little more than invented self-reinforcing delusions does as little to drive a stake in these dead or trivial side issues as any presentations of the real or relevant facts has.

  • 3 steve // Jul 29, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    That should say “…cannot be taken seriously..”


  • 4 Emily // Jul 29, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    I like the “alternative ecosystem” analysis. It makes sense, insofar as the word “sense” can be used to refer to anything Birther-related. It makes my brain hurt when I try to see things from the perspective of somebody who really believes this kind of crap.

  • 5 paradoctor // Jul 30, 2009 at 10:48 am

    Birtherism isn’t just nonsense; it’s ‘spherical’ nonsense; that is, it’s nonsense any way you look at it. Aside from the birth certificates and the newspaper announcements and personal testimony, there’s also the fact that the whole issue is moot; Obama’s mother is a citizen, therefore so is he. And what’s more, McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone.

    Of course it doesn’t help for me to mention the mootness of the point; it merely rounds out the sphericality of the nonsense. Spherical nonsense persists because its devotees don’t want sense; they want vehemence. They want completeness, and complete falsehood will do.

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Jul 30, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Actually, as they will never tire of telling you, under the law at the time, Obama’s mother’s citizenship would not have been transmitted to her son had he been born abroad, because she hadn’t spent enough time living as an adult in the United States.

  • 7 Steve M. // Jul 30, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    I’m not sure why this is surprising. Whatever traits gave our ancestors an edge in the struggle for survival, surely dispassionate assessment of the truth is not among them. Indeed, as impressive as reason and its achievements are, people have a remarkable capacity for rationalizing pre-existing preferences.

    Also, I think the best way to put the trouble with American journalists is to say that they are very deeply confused about the difference between neutrality and objectivity.

  • 8 Barry // Jul 30, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    ” 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. ”

    First, the mainstream media has given this more consideration than any anti-Bush rumor. Usually, of course, using the ‘some say’ and ‘there is a controversy’ to cover their *sses, just as a smart reporter heavily uses ‘alleged’ and ‘reportedly’ to protect against libel.

    Second this ‘epistemic loop’ is not random; it’s right-wingers reacting to losing an election, and seeing a black man in office. In the 1990′s, we saw vast quantities of anti-Clinton sh*t . Which were also promoted by the ‘Liberal MSM’, using the same CYA techniques – odd that, for such Librul Meedya.

  • 9 jre // Jul 31, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Re/6: Yes — I never heard it from a Birther, having successfully steered clear of them so far, but I did look it up and, sure enough, Case 4 of 5 does make it impossible in principle for a woman younger than 19 to transfer citizenship to her child. This seems inequitable — does anyone know if it has been upheld by a court?

  • 10 Fear of a Foreign President Making sense of the birther conspiracy theorists… « -THE "G" BLOGS ~ Gunny G Online - // Aug 1, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    [...] should just calm down. The birthers are silly and wrong, but they aren’t uncharted territory. At any given time, the base of a political [...]

  • 11 Talking truth to stupid: Bill Maher « The Brain Scroll // Aug 2, 2009 at 1:44 am

    [...] “a birth certificate”. It’s not a fringe viewpoint supported by some facts, but a viewpoint entirely unsupported by facts, and in a state of active denial about trivially verifiabl…. Bill Clinton’s detractors, on the other hand, were entirely supported by facts, the [...]

  • 12 Michael Wotka // Aug 3, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    I will say that I agree Obama is most likely an American citizen. But your whole argument ignores the root of the problem, which was the campaign’s refusal to release the ACTUAL original birth certificate. The one extensively vetted on factcheck.org is the “short form”, while if you take the time to examine your own certificate, it generally lists such things as the attending physician and the hospital where the birth occurred. You can call this crazy talk if you want, but it IS a legitimate consideration to wonder why the long form has never appeared. Seems to me it would end the silly debate once and for all. But then, Obama hasn’t exactly been very forthcoming with any records pertaining to his history. Why wouldn’t he release college transcripts, for instance? We all know what Bush and Kerry’s college GPAs were, but for some reason Obama’s was off limits. It all sounds like there is something to hide, or why hide it? Any respectable employer will want to know your college GPA. Why can’t the American people? If Obama hadn’t been hiding facets of his own history, none of these conspiracy theories would have sprung up to the degree that they have.

  • 13 jre // Aug 3, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    … it IS a legitimate consideration to wonder why the long form has never appeared.

    No it isn’t. Once Obama had produced for inspection a document satisfying the requirements of Federal and state law as proof of citizenship, he had done all that he might be reasonably asked to do. The notion that Obama’s failure to come up with any and every document demanded by the paranoid fringe constitutes “refusal to release” is monumentally silly, and deserves a wet raspberry every time it comes up. Pbbbbfffft.

  • 14 Michael Wotka // Aug 3, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    You basically say you are right because anyone who brings up any contrary facts belongs to some “paranoid fringe”, when in reality this issue is being discussed all over the national media. It IS a concern, and it could be easily addressed by releasing the same birth certificate that most people keep in a safe deposit box or some such secure location. Having to have the state of Hawaii reprint a “shortened” version, even if it is acceptable legally, leaves the door open for questions. Do you not wonder why they won’t just release it and be done with it? They could even say it was lost over the years or something, but instead don’t address it. And what about the closed academic records. Can you really just say that doesn’t matter at all? This is, after all, the man who promised to redefine transparency in government. Producing your actual birth certificate doesn’t seem like that crazy of a record to ask for, especially when it seems clear that his parents spent considerable time traveling in Africa around the time of his birth. I do agree that the whole issue is moot now anyways, but it was a legitimate concern during the campaigns, both when presented by Hillary’s campaign and the Republicans.

  • 15 jre // Aug 5, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    … anyone who brings up any contrary facts belongs to some “paranoid fringe”, when in reality this issue is being discussed all over the national media.

    It is begging the question to refer to “contrary facts” without producing any.
    Again: Obama has produced evidence of his citizenship satisfactory to every authority competent to judge it. Insisting that there is some other evidence that he now must produce because … well, golly, because you think he just ought to, is the behavior that keeps this foolishness going.

    As Julian notes above, we are talking about people who think the president is prepared to resort to forgery. Nothing will ever make them quit with this mishegaas except fatigue, and mockery, and a new conspiracy to chase. The belief that Obama is somehow concealing his records is indeed paranoid, and fringy, and silly. Pbbbbfffft.

  • 16 James Wahler // Aug 8, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Julian and the rest of you who use derisive terms to describe ‘birthers’, are using the tactic used by those who have no validity to their arguments. You are all overlooking a few very important facts.

    1. The Hawaiian ‘certificate of live birth’ is NOT an official document. It does NOT have the name or signature of the doctor, the name of the hospital or other details that all Official Birth Certifications are required to have. The Hawaiian certificate of live birth can be obtained by anyone, whether they live in Hawaii of Alaska! It PROVES nothing.

    2. A newspaper birth announcement is no better that a classified ad.

    The question remains; Where is the Birth Certificate that everyone else must have in order to get a SS number or drivers license?

    Why is Obama fighting so hard to keep his birth certificate, college records and other background papers locked up, when McCain and all other candidates have provided all of this information? IF he has nothing to hide, this whole thing could be resolved once and for all by releasing a REAL, OFFICIAL birth certificate!

    PS; Lou Dobbs believes Obama was born in Hawaii. He simply suggested what I said in my last sentence above. ;-)

  • 17 jre // Aug 9, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    The Hawaiian ‘certificate of live birth’ is NOT an official document.

    Baloney. It is an official document, certified by the state of Hawaii, accepted by the Federal government and the other 49 states as proof of birth. You can get a passport, driver’s license or Social Security number with it. It is an empty exercise simply to assert again and again that the Obama birth certificate is not “official.”

    A newspaper birth announcement is no better [than] a classified ad.

    Sure, if that classified ad were contemporaneous evidence of the event in question. What’s your point?

    When sociologists of the future discuss the group dynamics of paranoia, this episode will be Exhibit “A” — the 2009 Birther Dancing Madness.

  • 18 Julian Sanchez // Aug 9, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    I assume my readers don’t need this explained, but essentially nothing James Wahler said is true. The COLB is the official document Hawaii would send anyone who requested a “birth certificate” and sufficient for just about any legal purpose for which you’d need one — such as obtaining a drivers license. It cannot be obtained by “anyone” and includes a city of birth verified by the state. The newspaper birth announcement, also, would almost certainly have come from the state health department’s list. Finally, I’m not aware of any presidential candidates other than Obama and McCain, in this election cycle or any other, releasing official documentation of their place of birth. Anyone with five minutes to spare on Google can easily confirm all this.

  • 19 Conspiracy Deathmatch: Birthers vs Truthers » Spectator Blogs // Aug 7, 2012 at 6:33 am

    [...] people who won’t be satisfied, regardless of the absurdity of their claims. As Julian Sanchez argues:Mainstream outlets may want to reconsider the point at which it’s worth taking up and [...]

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