By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Natural-born citizens of Idiot America

In my latest for the Guardian, I consider how the media ought to deal with the right-wing Birther movement through the lens of my friend Charles Pierce’s excellent new book — “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.”

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  1. lkcape

    Noble of you Dan, to encourage the "…intelligent,educated segment of our culture" to "go after the charlatans and whackjobs."A reminder: Wing nuts come in both left- and right-handed threads.Be careful to go after "charlatans and whackjobs" wherever they may be found. Be careful of using political differences from clouding your judgment. And be careful as to who you label as a whackjob. Your status as a member of "…intelligent,educated segment of our culture" does not insulate you from being a whackjob yourself.Anyway, we are so, so fortunate to have you as one our exalted protectors from those beastly purveyors of misinformation.When does the worship service begin?

  2. Dan Kennedy

    When does the worship service begin?Every time you read Media Nation, Ikcape.

  3. Steve

    First, I applaud all efforts leading to more Charlie Pierce.Dan, I think you're right that as long as idiots are getting air time in media outlets that care about their "respectability", they should be confronted and exposed as idiots for all to see.But this puts you at odds with John Carroll's recent prescription for covering Sarah Palin, which is to "give her a good leaving alone". I think John is wrong – the media will not do it; Palin is too shiny an object.Fight The Stupid, wherever The Stupid raises its head. It's a big and thankless job, but we all have to do it.(And yes, lk, The Stupid exists on all extremes of the political and social spectrum.)

  4. Bill Baar

    I don't care much about Obama's birth cert, but I would like to know who paid his way in College and Law School.

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Steve: I'm struck by the number of people who tell me I should ignore X, Y or Z rather than give them more publicity. I disagree with John. Even those who are not Palin fans think her main problem is a lack of qualifications. As we know, that's not even close, and the media are to blame for that.

  6. ShelT

    Exacerbating the problem is the timidity of the press. Instead of filtering comments from sources to find the truth, too many reporters have become stenographers. If you have 2 people, 1 who says the earth is round, and the other who insists it's flat, the reporter does not have to give equal time to the duo to be "fair." Rather, the reporter should shove a satellite photo of the planet in the face of the flat disciple, and say: "explain yourself," and then delete the clown's name from his Rolodex.

  7. lkcape

    Good comeback Dan…. But you really need to change your vestments to something more official looking.

  8. Peter Porcupine

    DK – I have to agree with lkcape. I cannot remember any posts from you about Cindy Sheehan and her support from Stormfront (!) as fellow campers in Crawford due to her assertions about 'zionists' and Palestinians. Anything about G-8 protestors? Greenpeace vandals?I agree this is your blog. You write what you want. But I would also submit that conservatives have a better record of disowning 'birthers' and such (my own take is – Move on. If it ever was an issue, it's moot now. You're being used. And you make conservatives look like loons). Certainly that holds true in mass media – we haven't heard about Cynthia McKinney lately, but Palin, Bush, Cheney, et al are still active subjects of bashing.

  9. Dan Kennedy

    PP: You have explained the reasons perfectly, whether you realize it or not.First you bring up some fringe figures on the left who never got any mainstream media attention except to bash them, and were never taken seriously by anyone except a few nuts.Then you bring up a former candidate for vice president, a former president, and a former vice president as their equivalents on the right.Do you not see what the problem is?Oh, gee, I'm trashing Cheney … better balance that off by making fun of Noam Chomsky! PP, who the hell takes Noam Chomsky seriously? (And yes, I realize we're probably going to hear from a few fans, but you know what I mean.)Cheney, meanwhile, is taken seriously by tens of millions of people.

  10. lkcape

    Yes, and Cheney's view is being taken a lot more seriously…like by the members of the Obama administration who have recently recognized that closing Guantanamo doesn't happen with just the stroke of a pen and domestic terrorism is a serious issue.All this walking backwards by the current administration is more destructive to body politic than you might believe.

  11. Michael Pahre

    On journalistic practice, there two main pieces of evidence proferred in this case:One, the Certificate of Live Birth issued by the State of Hawaii. (They don't issue copies of the original Birth Certificates, which is one thing feeding the wingnut frenzy.) Two, the contemporaneous newspaper report of the birth to the two named parents.Am I correct that standard journalistic practice is that, with two independent pieces of evidence, you report it as fact?While I haven't been following the crazies here, my understanding is that none of them are questioning the veracity of the Certificate of Live Birth — which could conceivable be by claiming it to be fraudulent, a certificate for somebody else, unofficial, etc. — only that it is not titled a "Birth Certificate." And I haven't heard a specific piece of evidence to contradict the veracity of the newspaper listing. Nor have I heard any contradictory evidence presented — which could conceivably by claiming eyewitness accounts that Obama's father was in Kenya for the 12 months prior to his birth, etc. (Just a made up idea of mine for sake of argument.)In the absence of an argument against evidence #1 and #2 and the absence of contradictory evidence, there does not appear to be a "controversial fact" in this case that would require reporting.If so, then any media outlet, or member of the media, would appear to be violating standard practices of journalism by not reporting Obama's birth date and location as fact. And, likewise, it would appear that any media outlet is well within the bounds of standard practices of journalism not to report on the contrarians' claims altogether, since their arguments do not raise any fact to be a "controversial fact"; journalists reporting on such arguments (e.g., CNN's Lou Dobbs) would be stepping outside the bounds of standard journalistic practice.What say you, professor of journalism?

  12. Peter Porcupine

    DK – I'm pleased to hear that you regard Greenpeace, Sheehan and G-8 protesters as marginal figures the same as I do. :~)(Sheehan was in Hyannis last week and gave a speech – again, her less savory connections wee ignored. But heck – she's no Sarah Palin!)

  13. Dan Kennedy

    Michael: You're thinking it through way too much. The overriding factor is that there's no legitimate controversy here and there never was. There's no reason for journalists to go on a fishing expedition just because the Birthers want them to.Ironically, the only presidential candidate in 2008 who was not born in the United States was John McCain. Funny how no one cared about that. (And no, I didn't care, either.)

  14. Steve

    McCain's birth in the Panama Canal Zone did stir some interest – a lawsuit that was dismissed for lack of standing and a US Senate resolution declaring McCain to be a natural-orn US citizen.

  15. Dan Kennedy

    I don't want to dignify the Birthers' lunacy by even mentioning Obama. But let's say someone was born to an American mother and a Japanese father while they were living in Japan. As I understand it, constitutional scholars disagree over whether that child would be considered a "natural-born citizen."A lot would depend on whether the mother had renounced her U.S. citizenship, either explicitly or implicitly. If they were living in Japan for a few years because the father had a job over there, but then returned to the U.S., then the child would not necessarily be ineligible to run for president.Certainly attempts to disqualify McCain were ludicrous.

  16. lkcape

    Michael: Technicality is what the implementation of law is all about.Indeed, that is exactly what every appellate court in the land deals with every day.There is ample evidence that Obama was born in Hawaii and qualifies as a natural-borne citizen of the US.Burden of proof is on the challengers. They have every right to have at it, just as the others have every right to have-at challenging Cheney and the others.A court has to accept the challenge and concur with the reasoning before anything can be legally accomplished. Absent that, the court of public opinion will rule on the ultimate credibility, and that could well be deeply divided.

  17. HNG

    Michael Pahre: Lou Dobbs is a journalist?

  18. Michael Pahre

    @ Dan: the hypothetical case of a child born overseas to an American mother and non-American father is actually settled law as of 1986 (albeit not a ruling by the Supreme Court).More narrow rules (same reference) pertain to a child born overseas to an American father and non-American mother — rules adopted historically to minimize the number of children claiming citizenship after being allegedly fathered by servicemen during the Korean and Vietnamese Wars. (My impression is that, due to the larger differences in culture and/or religion as well as more strict physical separation between soldiers and populace, there are far fewer cases of paternity arising out of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.)@ lkcape: I don't dispute that challengers have the burden of proof, or that they have every right to pursue their theories on their own time and dime.I was merely trying to argue how journalists should feel no compulsion whatsoever (based on journalistic standards) to give a second of on-air time, or a single word in their print article, to these conspiracy theories and theorists.Dan seems to think that I am still taking them far too seriously.But my underlying reasoning is that someone like Lou Dobbs should be very clearly stating the facts in the case as facts — and not as what he believes, or his opinion, etc. He's entitled to his own opinion, but he's not entitled to his own facts or his own journalistic standards in how he deals with those facts. I suspect that he is close to crossing over the journalistic line here such that CNN could conceivably fire him for cause.

  19. Dan Kennedy

    Michael: This is television we're talking about here. CNN could fire Lou Dobbs because they think he's gotten too fat. In reality, they will only fire him if he starts costing them money.

  20. Michael Pahre

    @ HNG: Dobbs a journalist or not? He is a talking head, entertainer, talk show host, etc., roles that cross-over with journalism at some level.But even Op-Ed columnists have to be fact-checked, and so should Dobbs.

  21. Bill Baar

    Birthers should invite Obama over for a beer – then ask to see his birth certificate to prove he’s old enough to drink!Makes sense to me… from CSJ Media barred from Obama beer summit – reporters sad

  22. Dan Kennedy

    Michael: More seriously, Dobbs did work as a journalist for much of his career, and though he no longer is in any meaningful sense, he is trading on his prior credibility.

  23. Adam Riglian

    My main curiosity with this debate, aside from how fervent the nutjobs are, is what their goal is?In the Birthers dream scenario, where Obama is proven to be of Kenyan birth, what happens?I would assume he would be removed and that Biden would take over, but I don't see how that improves the Birthers situation.I guess if you're crazy you don't have to think things through.

  24. lkcape

    "…[Lou Dobbs] is trading on his prior credibility."What credibility?Same can be said for many…most…of the other talking body parts.

  25. LFNeilson

    It strikes me that this brouhaha has more to do with hurling insults than consideration of evidence, facts, or citation of law.(Not so much in this forum, thank you, Dan. But it's out there.)

  26. Robin Edgar

    "Dan, I think you're right that as long as idiots are getting air time in media outlets that care about their "respectability", they should be confronted and exposed as idiots for all to see."Couldn't agree more. 🙂

  27. Brad

    who the hell takes Noam Chomsky seriously? (And yes, I realize we're probably going to hear from a few fans, but you know what I mean.)Oh my, Dan. Do you know how many people listen to Amy Goodman and Democracy Now? Those crackpots hang on Chomsky's every word. And there's quite a few of them…I've heard that WZBC's fundraising doubled after they added DN to the lineup.

  28. lkcape

    Are we talking about left-wing nuts here?Hmmmm… one of our regulars may not like such conversation.

  29. Robin Edgar

    Only one?I will have you know that I am a moderate political liberal, making me somewhat left-wing, and an alleged "dangerously deranged psycho/sociopath whose antagonistic and aggressive threats against others should be sufficient enough to commit him involuntarily to a mental institution". Doesn't get much more nutty than that does it? 😉

  30. Robin Edgar

    Come to think of it. . .The "less than excellent" Unitarian*Universalist minister who almost certainly made *that* dubious libelous allegation about me might well qualify as a Natural-born citizen of Idiot America. Not that I think that all or even most Americans, or indeed "Unitarians" are idiots but *that* particular U*U, U*U cleric or not, certainly qualifies as an idiot if only for failing to disguise his glaringly obvious writing style while libeling me under the cowardly (or should I say Tim*id?) cover of internet anonymity. Interestingly enough the WVC for *this* comment is scentlec which *I* will interpret as -the stink of a Left-Wing (or Loony) Eclectic Cleric who quite foolishly, indeed quite idiotically, got into a pissing match with this alleged *skunk* on the internet. . . 🙂

  31. lkcape

    Speaking of hurling insults….Golly gee.

  32. Michael Pahre

    Not to beat a dead horse )or an old commentator), but…On the issue of whether or not Lou Dobbs is a journalist, CNN management kind-of thinks he is — and is doing a "relatively straight newscast". From the AP (via Media Matters):"[CNN President Jonathan] Klein said Dobbs does a smart newscast that explores issues that get little in-depth attention elsewhere… He suggested Dobbs' CNN work is unfairly lumped in with his unrelated radio show… The two men sat down after last year's election to make changes, aware that the anti-immigrant Dobbs' image ran counter to the brand CNN was trying to create… Since then, Dobbs has been doing a relatively straight newscast, Klein said.[emphasis added]

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