MICHIGAN — Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan brought the Republican presidential ticket to Commerce, Michigan today in an event billed as a “Homecoming Rally”—Romney grew up here in Oakland County. As expected, Romney celebrated his Michigan roots, but he did it, in part, with a crowd-pleasing reference to the utterly false and debunked notion that Obama’s US citizenship is questionable.
Let’s take a look at how Michigan news outlets reported on Romney’s reference.
Writes the Detroit Free Press’s Kathy Gray (in her story’s sixth paragraph):
Romney also slammed Obama while reveling in his return to the state where he was born and grew up.
“Nobody asks for my birth certificate,” he said. “Everyone knows I was born and raised here. It feels like coming home to this beautiful state.”
Unfortunately, Gray does not immediately thereafter—or ever, really, in her piece— clarify that “slam,” explain that there is no legitimate debate about Obama’s birth certificate. Instead, in the paragraph following Romney’s quotation, the reporter moves on to paraphrase the economic ideas that Romney presented at the rally.
By letting Romney’s words stand—particularly when they are given prime position in the top-third of the article—the Free Press reporter lends them unwarranted credence, and gives the Republican candidate a pass on a smarmy rhetorical tactic—and passes said rhetoric along to readers, unchallenged and unexplained. Four paragraphs later, Gray provides Michigan Democratic Party chair Mark Brewer with the opportunity to make an offhand, “he-said” response: “And it’s real sad to hear that [Romney’s] now become a birther, too.” But Gray gives no explanation of what a “birther” is, and she stuffs Brewer’s quote in her story’s third-to-last paragraph, next to a list of other Romney/Ryan policy positions that Brewer opposes. This makes it seem as if Obama’s citizenship is as up for debate as the wisdom of the auto industry loans or Medicare reform.
Mlive, a statewide news site, makes a similar mistake. Reporter Dave Murray puts the challenge to Romney’s joke entirely in the hands of a political opponent, like so:
The former Massachusetts governor leaned heavily on his Michigan roots, joking “No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate; they know I’m from right here.”
The remarks were called “extreme” by Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer, who asked whether Romney has joined “birthers” who believe Obama was not born in the United States.
Murray’s article leaves it at that, moving on to cover the rest of the rally’s agenda. (He did write a a second story with more background—but readers may not have followed him there.) This speaks to the dangers of superficial political event coverage, when reporters stick too close to the candidate’s rally script, which I have written about before.
The Detroit News leads with the birth certificate joke in its headline: “Romney in Michigan: ‘No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.’” (Note that The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press recorded Romney’s words in slightly different ways. This isn’t the only instance in the article where this is so, either.)
But while the Free Press lets Romney’s reference slide by unchallenged, Detroit News political reporter Marisa Schultz counters it immediately with key background information. Writes
[Romney] recalled his roots growing up in Michigan and falling in love with wife, Ann, here. Ann Romney was born at Henry Ford Hospital, Romney said, and he arrived at Harper Hospital in Detroit.
“No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate,” Romney said to cheers. “They know this is the place where we were born and raised.”
President Obama released his long-form birth certificate after conspiracy theorists, perpetuated by calls from the likes of Donald Trump, doubted whether Obama was a U.S. citizen, and therefore not entitled to be president. Obama was born in Hawaii.