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.”