Michigan media on Romney’s birth certificate ‘joke’ (UPDATED)

Some news outlets let it slide—unexplained, unchallenged

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 Shultz Schultz:

[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.

This straightforward summary of the manufactured controversy alerts readers to the facts behind the politicking. It’s also a solid basis for Schultz to follow up with responses to Romney’s remarks from opposing political camps. Like her Free Press counterpart, she quotes Brewer on Romney having “become a birther,” but she also checks in with the candidate’s campaign. Shultz Schultz reports:

Kelsey Knight, a Romney spokeswoman, said afterward that Romney’s birth certificate remarks were meant to connect to the hometown audience and were not meant to question the president’s citizenship.

Romney “knows he (Obama) has a birth certificate,” she said. “He wouldn’t be president if he didn’t have one.”

National media also picked up on Romney’s comments in Michigan. On The Caucus blog, the New York Times follows a formula similar to The Detroit News. It leads the piece with Romney’s birth certificate joke, and immediately follows Romney’s quotation with background on birtherism—importantly, this is stated in the narrative of the piece rather than in a quote from a political opponent. Per the Times:

Mr. Obama, who was born in Hawaii and shared his birth certificate with the national media, has long been dogged with “birther” rumors, from those who falsely question where he was actually born in the United States.

The Washington Post makes this clarifying paragraph its lede:

Mitt Romney made a joke about his birth certificate at a rally here Friday that many in the crowd heard as a swipe at President Obama, who has been the subject of false theories about whether he was born in the United States.

At this late date, years after the faux controversy over Obama’s birth certificate emerged, there is no excuse for reporters to let politicians get away with unchallenged references to it, even if, as in Romney’s case, it’s presented as a joke. Of course, the best thing for reporters to do about the birther conspiracy theory is to ignore it altogether—it has no grounding in fact and therefore has no place in fact-based media.

But when newsworthy figures bring it up, journalists—like those at today’s Michigan rally— must cover it in a way that does not contribute to the spread of false information. (See, for example, from May, Brendan Nyhan’s annotated guide on how to cover birthers and Walter Shapiro’s post for CJR on “how to cover birther bedlam,” as well as yet another example of what not to do.)

With coverage of Romney’s “joke” in Michigan, local media unwittingly gives us a chance to reaffirm how reporters should, and should not, cover birther references. The gist: don’t let them slide. Don’t position such remarks as if they were a matter of opinion, with the only challenge coming from a political opponent. And, please, do counter the remarks with facts and background.

UPDATE (8/25/12,10:40am): Sometime between 5:40pm yesterday, when my above post was published, and about 8:40pm, the Free Press changed its story.

There is no indication that the story that now appears on the Free Press’s website has been updated. This isn’t a wholly unique instance for the newspaper; I have observed this practice before. The Free Press substantively edits and expands stories, quite beyond mere copy editing corrections, and does not give a clear sign to readers it made changes from earlier versions of the story.

It is laudatory that the Free Press is looking to get stories to readers as promptly as possible. And it’s admirable that the paper is also aware that quick-turnaround stories in particular may need to be improved or corrected after they go live. I get that: two misspellings of a name made it through my own above quick-turnaround post yesterday, and I was glad to have the resources of the web to swiftly make changes.

But when the Free Press doesn’t tag a story as “developing,” or an edited article as one that has been “updated,” it is being less than transparent with its readers. Those who come to the story early are unaware that what they are reading is a story in flux. Those coming later to the story will not know their neighbors may have read a different version of the story—and have a different sense of the facts. Those who encounter both versions of the story may just be confused, or even skeptical about why their newspaper would quietly make changes to its story without letting them know. While this kind of tagging (“updated” or “developing”) isn’t quite industry standard yet, more and more news outlets have embraced it—including USA Today, for example, which is the flagship publication from Gannett, the Free Press’s parent corporation.

Now: what of the Free Press changes to the birth certificate article? Are they any good?

Well, the article by staff writer Kathleen Gray (her byline was Kathy Gray in the original) is somewhat better now than it was before. The key quote by Romney—“No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know this is the place where we were born and raised.”—has been corrected; the original version had him using different phrasing. The article gives a little more immediate background on birthers, and it includes statements in response to the joke from both Obama’s and Romney’s campaigns. Gray also affirms in the prose of the piece that Obama was born in Hawaii, taking a bit of the steam out of the idea that the president’s citizenship is a matter of opinion.

But the article still elevates the political feedback loop over crucial context. Here is how Gray puts it in the sixth paragraph of the current version of the story, just after quoting Romney’s joke and paraphrasing his shout-out to the Detroit hospitals where he and his wife, Ann, were born:

Democrats immediately pounced on Romney’s reference to the controversy created by so-called birthers over President Barack Obama’s birthplace. Records show Obama was born in Hawaii, but birthers suggest he wasn’t born on U.S. soil, disqualifying him to serve as president.

Gray then moves into the statements from opposing camps. Located in the middle of political back-and-forth, the important “Records show…” sentence gets crowded out. To maintain perspective on the story, it would have been better to reverse the sentences in the above paragraph.

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Marisa Schultz’s name in two places. CJR regrets the error.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.