Recognizing 21st-century deadline pressures and standard journalistic strictures against editorializing in news columns, I nonetheless found most press coverage of Trump’s charges to be tepid. A New York Times story by Ashley Parker dealt at length with the political ramifications of the Romney-Trump relationship, but merely described claims of a faked birth certificate to be “a long-discredited accusation.” In Politico, a three-page political strategy story by Maggie Haberman and Reid J. Epstein (“Mitt Romney won’t dump Trump”) limited its skepticism about the underlying charges to a 13-word, second-paragraph summary: “Trump is essentially dismissing the legitimacy of the commander-in-chief’s birth certificate.” But that was advocacy journalism compared to an uninflected blog post at CBS.com by Stephanie Condon that only quoted an Obama campaign statement in response to Trump.
The belief that Obama knowingly released from the White House a counterfeit birth certificate is more than, as the Times timorously put it, “a long-discredited accusation.” It also represents more than, as the standard liberal litany has it, evidence that the birther movement is coded racism emphasizing Obama’s other-ness.
What we are dealing with here are claims that the Kenyan-born president of the United States willfully subverted the Constitution for his own ambition. Think of it—that is somewhere between Richard Nixon’s impeachment and treason. That is why the Joe McCarthy analogy (a comparison that I use, at most, once a decade) is so apt. Campaign reporters dealing with the vitriol from Trump and other birthers should ask themselves, “How would I have covered a major 1950s political figure who echoed the John Birch Society’s charges that President Dwight Eisenhower was a knowing agent of the international Communist conspiracy?”
My own answer—and I realize that it could make all future Trump stories clunky—is to overwhelm the reader with evidence why the birther conspiracy theories are factually wrong. A version of this approach was found in a 12-paragraph Los Angeles Times blog post on Trump by Morgan Little that pointedly included two paragraphs detailing how Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett had recently apologized for challenging Obama’s birthplace after receiving official documents from Hawaii. I also understand the impulse that prompted Jeremy Stahl in Slate to call Trump’s theories “batshit,” even though I suspect that this emphatic compound noun is not likely to grace the pages of The New York Times. (Political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who has written for CJR about his research showing that too much repetition of false charges, even to debunk them, can contribute to reader misperception, has further thoughts on effective strategies here).
If only Trump were a trompe l’oeil illusion that you could blink away to return to standard campaign coverage. But his attention-getting endorsement of birther bile is so insidious that campaign reporters must always go beyond Trump-claimed-and-Democrats-responded false equivalence. Some things in politics are simply out of bounds—as Joe McCarthy demonstrated six decades ago.