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?”