Catering to Obama Haters

Lunatic right-wing “birthers” have gotten a toehold on CNN and Fox News, and even the McCain campaign investigated their claims. Paul Campos on why the media kowtows to the far-right fringe.

Saul Loeb / Getty Images

Earlier this week, Hardball news anchor Chris Matthews grilled Rep. John Campbell (R-CA) about whether Campbell believes Barack Obama was born in the United States. Campbell, who is co-sponsoring a bill that would require presidential candidates to produce birth certificates proving their eligibility for office, dodged the question no less than seven times before conceding that “as far as I know” Obama was born in the USA.

An exasperated Matthews then started waving a copy of Obama’s birth certificate on camera, while excoriating Campbell for “playing to the crazies” in his party.

It’s been a good week for the (apparently numerous) crazies who believe, against all evidence and common sense, that Barack Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii. After fermenting for months on numerous right-wing websites, so-called “birther” conspiracy theories are beginning to draw attention from the mainstream media, which is not limiting itself to pointing out how preposterous these theories are.

The mainstream media is well aware that the slightest attention to, or tolerance of, nutty left-wing conspiracy theories would be used as yet another stick with which to beat it.

For example, last week prominent CNN anchor Lou Dobbs lent a sympathetic microphone to professional lunatic Alan Keyes and his lawyer Orly Taitz, who are suing Obama to try to force the president to produce a “valid” birth certificate. The bloviating Dobbs, who clearly relishes his role as a pseudo-populist gasbag, commiserated with his guests: “Why not just provide a copy of his birth certificate? Then all this nonsense goes away,” Dobbs claimed, absurdly enough (as if people who believe in crazy conspiracy theories are ever deterred by facts). “But he doesn’t. So none of us know what the reality is,” Dobbs whined.

A piece of that reality was on frightening display earlier this month, at a town meeting in Delaware, during which another GOP congressman, Mike Castle, came face to face with the screeching madness that seems to be infecting significant portions of the Republican base. (Dobbs used a video of this bizarre scene as evidence for his claim that there are legitimate questions about Obama’s legal right to be president.)

An instructive comparison can be made between the right-wing Birthers and their (mostly) left-wing cousins, the 9/11 “Truthers.” The Truthers, who have constructed a myriad of theories in their attempts to prove that the 9/11 attacks were actually carried out by the U.S. government, have almost completely failed to generate any mainstream media attention.

For example, a check of the Nexis news database for the first seven months of 2009 reveals nearly ten times as many stories about Obama’s birth certificate, in comparison to the number of stories that appeared in the first seven months of 2002 referring to any claim about a 9/11 conspiracy.

Furthermore, mainstream media stories mentioning Truther claims have always been uniformly dismissive—and properly so. The claim that the Bush administration flew commercial jets into the World Trade Center (or, in more baroque versions, missiles disguised as jets by holographic technology), to cover up the “fact” that they then brought down the towers by controlled demolition, has always been the most blatant sort of paranoid delusion.

But such beliefs are certainly no more delusional than the claim that Barack Obama’s family inexplicably engaged in a decades-long elaborate cover-up of the “fact” that he was born in Kenya (or in some versions, Indonesia).

Ask yourself this: What would have happened if, in July of 2002, Lou Dobbs would have conducted respectful interviews with various Truthers, in the course of which Dobbs called on the Bush administration to prove by documentary evidence that the U.S. government hadn’t actually carried out the 9/11 attacks?

The answer is obvious: Dobbs would have been fired before the next morning—which is another way of saying that it’s inconceivable that he or any other mainstream media figure would ever do such a thing. Similarly, it’s equally inconceivable that any Democratic member of Congress would go on a program like Hardball and repeatedly refuse to say whether he rejected the idea that the Bush administration was behind the 9/11 attacks.

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What accounts for this double standard? Why are GOP politicians like Campbell getting away with playing to the Birther crazies, and why is Dobbs’ utterly irresponsible behavior being tolerated by CNN?

Part of the answer surely has to do with the enormous success the right-wing propaganda machine has had in portraying the mainstream media as being in the grips of a supposedly liberal bias. The mainstream media is well aware that the slightest attention to, or tolerance of, nutty left-wing conspiracy theories would be used as yet another stick with which to beat it.

But nutty right-wing conspiracy theories are another matter. As the Birther phenomenon demonstrates, the media is much more likely to, as the expression has it, “go meta” on such stories, and treat them as interesting cultural phenomena worthy of something other than pure contempt. This in turn allows mainstream conservative politicians to exploit the paranoid delusions circulating in their base to a far greater extent than mainstream liberals could ever do in regard to similar fantasies. (No mainstream liberal politician will ever be caught within a thousand miles of a Truther.)

Another way of putting this is that, in America today, while the paranoid left-wing fringe remains quarantined on obscure websites, the paranoid right-wing fringe is becoming another name for a good part of the Republican Party’s base.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado at Boulder.