On February 9, 1950, a back-bench Wisconsin senator named Joseph McCarthy delivered an unheralded political speech to a Republican women’s club in West Virginia. McCarthy’s Wheeling remarks included the brief and completely fabricated claim that he had in his hand the names of 205 known Communists in the State Department.
Within 24 hours—with the number of “card-carrying Communists” dancing from 207 to 57 to 81 and no list ever being produced—McCarthy’s charges exploded across America. As Haynes Johnson recounts in his book, The Age of Anxiety, the transmission belt was from the Wheeling Intelligencer to the state Associated Press wire to the national AP to McCarthy press conferences in Denver and Salt Lake City to more wire copy. Without McCarthy offering a shred of evidence, influential newspapers like the Washington Evening Star ran credulous front-page headlines: “McCarthy Charges 57 in State Department Hold Red Party Cards.”
This early failure of the press corps to challenge McCarthy’s guttersnipe tactics was supposed to offer an eternal-flame object lesson in the limitations of stenographic journalism. But the Donald Trump birther circus this week serves as a reminder that these McCarthy era lessons need to be re-taught to every generation.
Tuesday morning’s grotesquely sycophantic CNBC interview of Trump by “Squawk Box” co-anchor Joe Kernen may have been the journalistic nadir of this political season. It was disturbing enough that Kernen never challenged Trump’s incendiary claims that Barack Obama’s “mother was never in the hospital…They can’t find any records that the mother was in the hospital.” (In fact, Obama’s long-form birth certificate shows that he was born in Honolulu’s Kapiolani Hospital). But Kernen also chimed in with his own birther lie, drawn from unnamed “conservative websites,” that Obama had all but admitted that he was born in Kenya during an Illinois campaign debate.
If Trump were in his normal role as self-promoting real-estate vulgarian, political reporters could, in theory, ignore his low-road conspiracy theories. But on the very day that he was denouncing the president’s Hawaiian birth certificate as a sham, Trump was also introducing Romney at a $2 million Las Vegas fundraiser. In addition, the Romney campaign has been soliciting online contributions with a “Dine with The Donald” promotion in which the lucky winner will be flown to New York to share a meal with Romney and Trump.
In 1950, amid the “Red Menace” hysteria, newspaper editors assumed that a United States Senator with a purported list of Communists in the State Department was newsworthy because of his elected office and the probability that he knew something. In Trump’s case, he is newsworthy because he is joined at the hip with the de facto Republican presidential nominee—and, frighteningly enough, could even have a role in a Romney administration.
So we are back to the same question that the AP West Virginia night editor in Charleston, Charles R. Lewis, had to deal with after McCarthy’s Wheeling speech 62 years ago: What do you do if someone newsworthy says something inflammatory and malicious, and not rooted in fact? (Mary Winter adroitly discussed analogous issues in a recent CJR column reviewing coverage of birtherism in a Colorado House race.)
The obvious wrong answer, which is the approach that Lewis followed, was to double-check the accuracy of the quote and then publish devoid of context. In contrast, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in his own Tuesday interview with Trump deserves plaudits for personally challenging every noxious birther claim and showing on-screen Obama long-form birth certificate. But most political journalists, especially those who are not TV anchors, are unlikely to get access to Trump for a protracted back-and-forth in which outlandish conspiracy theories can be debunked.
So how should birther bedlam and things that go Trump in the night be covered?
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.