When a ‘birther’ story comes knocking

After congressman's comments, a Denver TV station doesn't let go

COLORADO — The so-called “birther” movement has emerged from hibernation, leaving media outlets this spring to figure out how best to handle the foul beast: starve it, feed it, or something in between?

Reporters in the Denver area were recently faced with a variation on that question, when an elected official challenged President Obama’s identity as an American, and tiptoed around the false “birther” theory, which holds that Obama is not a natural-born U.S. citizen.

At a May 12 fundraiser in conservative Elbert County southeast of Denver, Rep. Mike Coffman, an incumbent Republican seeking re-election to Congress, said: “I don’t know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States of America. I don’t know that. But I do know this, that in his heart, he’s not an American. He’s just not an American.”

Coffman’s comments, recorded by a supporter who posted them on Facebook, soon landed on the desk of Kyle Clark, an investigative reporter and co-anchor at KUSA-9News in Denver. Clark promptly ran with the story, reporting on both Coffman’s remarks and his partial backtracking—when Coffman’s staff realized 9News had the recording, the congressman and ex-Marine released an email apologizing and saying he “misspoke” at the fundraiser, though he added, “I don’t believe the president shares my belief in American Exceptionalism.”

Over the following week, the episode was fodder for local and national media, as well as for Coffman’s rival in the redrawn—and no longer safely Republican—6th Congressional District, Democrat Joel Miklosi, who trails Coffman in fundraising and in the polls. (Clark’s original story noted that the station was tipped off to the recording by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which apparently saw an opportunity to use Coffman’s words against him.) Clark, who broke the story, was among the reporters trying hardest to advance it. He made five requests with Coffman’s staff to talk to the congressman, to no avail, Clark told CJR.

“We made it very clear that our strong preference was to do a sit-down interview at a time and place of their choosing… and talk about this issue in depth,” he said, “and we made it clear that if they didn’t want to do a scheduled interview, then we were going to do an unscheduled interview.”

That “unscheduled interview” happened Tuesday, nearly a week after the story broke. Outside a fundraiser in downtown Denver, Clark and his cameraman approached Coffman and asked him a series of questions about his comments in Elbert County. To each inquiry—there were five in all—the congressman responded, “I stand by my statement that I misspoke, and I apologize.” (Coffman and his staff did not respond to requests for comment from CJR.)

Coffman’s robotic response was widely viewed as a public relations bomb. But the continuing media focus on the story might also rekindle a long-standing debate among journalists and press-watchers: Should reporters minimize fringe perspectives, since media coverage gives them added credence and fluency, and possibly motivation? Or should journalists, as First Amendment sentries, vow to report on everything that happens in the public square, especially when the lead actors are elected officials?

Clark said he pursued the story because he believes voters deserve an explanation for why Coffman behaved so curiously—first stating the president is “not an American,” then quickly backpedaling and saying he misspoke.

“Who is the real Mike Coffman?” Clark said in a phone interview with CJR Wednesday. “Is it the thoroughly moderate guy that we see on camera all the time, or is it the guy who was caught talking to donors behind closed doors when he didn’t know someone was recording? I think that’s what voters need to know, because many of them are voting for or against him for the first time.” (Viewer reaction, measured in social media and “dozens” of emails, has run about 50-50, Clark said. “Everything from you’re a journalism hero to Channel 9 should fire you today.”)

I suspect most journalists would agree that 9News was obliged to air the story, and keep following it, as part of its basic job of illuminating public officials’ words and deeds.

But the media’s mandate is much less clear when the story does not involve an elected official or other public person. For example, I made a case for ignoring fringe groups like the members of the Westboro Baptist church, who protested at Elizabeth Edwards’s 2010 funeral in North Carolina.

Even when public officials are at the center of the story, the guidelines aren’t in stone. CJR contributor Brendan Nyhan, who has researched the persistence of false beliefs, cried foul when media outlets covered Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s press conference detailing an “investigation” into Obama’s birth certificate. As Nyhan wrote, the simple repetition of falsehoods “can create a feeling of fluency that causes people to misperceive them as true over time.”

The two situations are not identical, of course—if Coffman’s original comments flirted with literal birtherism, they didn’t quite embrace it—but Nyhan’s recommendations are still relevant. “In the cases in which reporters do feel obliged to provide coverage, it is vital that they not act as stenographers … for the public officials who are promoting misinformation,” he wrote.

In the Coffman case, the coverage steered clear of that pitfall. And the sustained attention to the story had an interesting effect. After Clark’s “unscheduled” interview, and President Obama’s speech in Colorado Wednesday morning—in which Obama made spoke about a new “American Century”—Denver Post editorial page editor Curtis Hubbard invited Coffman to address the fall-out from his remarks.

“Given the 9News interview and President Obama’s comments at the Air Force Academy on Wednesday, it was clear that the issue was not going away any time soon,” Hubbard said. “The Congressman had pitched a couple of guest commentary ideas, and I suggested that he take on the topic that everyone would be talking about: namely his comments in Elbert County.”

In the resulting guest commentary, published Wednesday evening on the Post’s website, Coffman offered a far more full-throated statement than he had made to Clark a day earlier. Calling his comments “inappropriate and bone-headed,” Coffman said he had “rejected the notion” that Obama is “anything other than American” since the discredited theories about the president’s birth certificate first began circulating in 2008. He added:

I believe President Obama loves this country and wakes up every morning trying to do what is best for our nation, even if I disagree with his approach. To question the president’s devotion to our country based on the fact that we disagree over policy issues was wrong of me and I am sorry.

Clark, who spoke to CJR a few hours before Coffman’s commentary was posted, said he is not sure where the story will go next.

“I think it largely has to be determined by how folks in his district react to his handling of it. If they tell us they want a better answer than the one they’ve received, then it’s incumbent on us to go and get it,” he said.

But “if they’re satisfied with his response, then I think we should leave it,” he said. “I don’t think that it’s our job to pursue something past the point that the folks who are deciding on Election Day want us to pursue it… at some point it just becomes a media crusade and that doesn’t serve anyone well.”

It’s an approach other reporters would do well to keep in mind. The closer this campaign gets to November, the more often journalists will need to ask themselves, “How does this story serve the public?”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at PoliticsDaily.com. She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.