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ON THE MEDIA

'Birthers' move on to new claims

With the document's release, they scurry to question other points in the president's life. How far can it go?

April 30, 2011|JAMES RAINEY

Back in the summer of 2008, as a furious presidential race ramped up to full hurricane force, the blogosphere unleashed its own series of ugly storm fronts.

Something about those Obamas wasn't right, the narrative went. A video would drop, any moment, showing Michelle Obama exploding in a racist rant, so multiple blog posts contended. The radical ghost author of Obama's autobiography would emerge. And the candidate's citizenship couldn't be confirmed. Where was his birth certificate?

So the claims went, stoking the Web's fever swamp of conspiracy and choking the in-baskets of journalists with better things to do. Many of those emails came along with abusive diatribes, about the failure and bias of the mainstream media.

The umpteenth batting aside of the Obama origin myth this week -- with the White House's release of his original birth certificate, confirming his Americanism -- produced no apologies or mea culpas. That might have occurred in the mythical civil society where many of us would like to live.

Instead, we watched the new King of the Cranks, Donald Trump, and a legion of other misleaders take up a new drumbeat of doubt and recrimination. Jerome Corsi, senior staff writer at the extremist website WorldNetDaily and a chief enabler of the Obama-as-foreigner lie, immediately renewed calls for the president's educational records. Going back to kindergarten. Really.

One would hope most Americans get it now. Answer one information challenge and the obstructionists raise another. Where are the records from Punahou High School? Harvard Law? What about the Selective Service and dental records? Hard to object to a public figure telling us more.

The spectacle was enough to make you wonder whether we are a people capable of knowing anything, of securing a single fact, or whether we are condemned to chasing ephemera, ab absurdo, ad infinitum.

Along the way, Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, G. Gordon Liddy and plenty of other radio and TV blowhards have fanned the stupidity. They might not have said Obama was a foreigner, but they treated the matter like an open question. Don't expect a smidgen of remorse from that lot.

Obama's news conference and the release of digital images of the money-green "Certificate of Live Birth #61-10641" came with a flurry of commentary. One morsel seemed particularly telling, if quixotic, on the question of what we know, or don't know.

New York Times polling blogger Nate Silver noted that a Gallup/USA Today poll had found "significant doubt" about whether Trump was born in the U.S. This should have been a joke, but it wasn't. While 43% of Americans told the surveyors they believed the reality show posturer was born in the U.S. of A., the rest landed somewhere on the spectrum of less certain.

It had to be speculated, too, whether some respondents were punking Trump, the pollsters, or both. Regardless, Silver noted that the Gallup numbers served as "something of a control group." He noted that the percentages who believed the public figures were definitely born in the U.S. -- 38% for President Obama and 43% for Trump -- "aren't all that different."

That led Silver to caution against overly literal readings of such polling and to suggest that repeated debunking of the "birther" rumors actually "legitimizes the topic as a point of discussion and

But what's the media to do? The biggest news outlets did their best not to touch this one during campaign '08. Though most realized the new digital reality had sapped their old power to control the conversation, they held on to a fleeting hope of not abetting the misinformation campaign. But Obama's operatives concluded that talk radio and the Internet were giving the rumors enough currency that they needed to be quashed.

The production of Obama's "short form" birth notice from Honolulu -- good enough for him or any other citizen to obtain a U.S. passport -- only provided raw material for the tricksters. They picked the digital image apart -- obsessing over a redaction here, a watermark there.

A couple of months later, in August, the nonpartisan website FactCheck.org confirmed it had "seen, touched, examined and photographed the original birth certificate."

But that wouldn't satisfy the true disbelievers. And neither will this week's release of copies of that same original.

Jonathan Kay, a Canadian journalist and author of "Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground," neatly described the "pathological" thinking of those who won't let facts get in the way.

"Ultimately, conspiracy theories are a way to reconcile people's ideology with reality," Kay told MSNBC. "It's a bridge between the world they want to be and the world that exists." These people -- unwilling to accept a liberal president or perhaps a president with brown skin -- keep moving the object of suspicion.

So agreement by the Hawaii state government and scores of media -- even Fox News' Bill O'Reilly -- that the place of Obama's birth cannot be legitimately doubted only spawns another question.

The unfaithful opposition "will simply draw a bigger circle around the conspiracy," Kay noted.

In the rebooted conspiracy narrative, the victim (surprise) bears much of the blame. If only Obama had released the more detailed birth certificate earlier, the opposition says, there would have been no more questions.

Yes, right. At least for those who believe the people listed on that fuzzy digitized document really were Obama's parents. But who's to say they were?

Why not exhume the bodies of Barack Hussein Obama and Stanley Ann Dunham, Obama's parents? You wouldn't object to a little DNA testing, Mr. President. Or do you have something to hide?

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey

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