Media helped inflate the birther story – CNN.com

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Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

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You may have been aware of the controversy raging over in the USA about President Obama and where he was born (Hawaii, since you ask). Of course, this so-called “birther” controversy wasn’t really about where Obama was born, it was about race. It’s just the latest in the insidious racism that has dogged Obama since he announced his candidacy. Not all racists are thick, some of them are clever enough to come up with bogus reasons to sow doubts about the president in the minds of other racists.

The big problem with this story, however, was the reporting of it. It struck me as being very similar in nature to the British media’s coverage of the MMR vaccine “controversy”, another non-story given legitimacy by the media by dint of endless repetition and by giving airtime to extremism and ignorance.

The media likes to pretend that they are merely holding up a mirror to society, making themselves as invisible as possible in order to transmit messages. They are, as Michel Serres likes to put it, acting as angels: invisible messengers.

Except that, in cases like this, they’re not. We don’t see news every day about people who think aliens are living among us (unless you count scientologists); we don’t see stories every day about people who think the world is flat, or deny the holocaust, or who believe in the superiority of those with lighter skins. That’s because people who hold these opinions are either tragically deluded, mentally unstable, or just plain nasty.

So why did the US media in particular go on and on and on about the racist “birther” movement? Why did it go on about the story until Obama was forced to release his birth certificate in a press conference, as if doing that was going to make a blind bit of difference to the racist opinions of his racist opponents?

The really interesting thing here is that there are very many reasons to expose Obama’s political weaknesses. Policies he’s made that aren’t working; wars that are dragging on; insane security policies; the continued existence of a prisoner of war camp on a little bit of Cuba. If Obama’s opponents wanted to go after him, there’s plenty of ammunition. So why go on about this non-story?

When nonstories fill the airwaves and dominate headlines, people stop paying attention and miss the real news. But more importantly when so much energy and so many resources are devoted to chasing a phantom issue, the real issues get ignored.

From skyrocketing unemployment in the black community and no end in sight for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the continued existence of Guantanamo and the unacceptably stalled immigration reform debate, President Obama has a long list of outstanding issues that the media should be focusing on. Yet if you turn on your television or visit any major news website, the political discussion in this country has been hijacked by the birther movement‘s Quixotian quest to find our nonexistent foreign-born president.

via Media helped inflate the birther story – CNN.com.

I think part of the answer at least relates to budget cuts. It’s surely easier to report something that somebody released to the press than it is to investigate a real news story. For the American media, the “birther” story was low hanging fruit — cheap airtime (or column inches) to fill with nonsensical opinions and speculation. Whereas researching and fact-checking real news stories is expensive.

That’s not the only reason, of course. For some of Obama’s opponents, the “birthers” were politically useful idiots, who could be used to undermine the authority of the President and allow racists to kid themselves that they weren’t being racist.

Finally, by dumbing down political discourse like this, by reducing politics and the economy to a game of yah-boo sucks, the media don’t have to ask questions about the political and economic system that has failed us so badly in the last few years. You can see the same thing happening in the UK with regard to the debate about the voting system and the forthcoming referendum. Instead of an in-depth discussion and real information, we get two opposing sides calling each other names and flatly contradicting each other. So that’s okay then.

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