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The Semi-Birthers At The MRC

Media Research Center writers didn't exactly support Obama birtherism, but they didn't exactly denounce it either. Only when eligibility questions popped up around Ted Cruz did the MRC get passionate on the subject.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 3/22/2016

Last September, the Media Research Center intern Bryan Ballas complained in a NewsBusters post that the Washington Post did an article on right-wing pastor Rafael Cruz's assertion that his son, Sen. Ted Cruz, is eligible to run for president, blaming the Post for bringing up "a long settled birther issue." Actually, it was Rafael Cruz who brought up the issue, and the Post merely reported what he said. Ballas further complained that the Post article noted that "Rafael Cruz himself has made birtheresque jabs at President Obama," adding, "One can only hope this was a filler piece and not the first sign of a long pattern of birther mud slinging."

With that, the MRC apparently decided that birther conspiracy theories are "mud slinging." That's interesting, because the MRC never really took that aggressive of a stance regarding birtherism as applied to Obama. While the MRC didn't exactly further Obama birtherism, it also did little to counter it.

Let's take a look back through the archives at how the MRC handled Obama birtherism over the years, a mixture of semi-denouncements and semi-endorsements:

  • A 2009 post by Clay Waters grumbled that the New York Times "questioned those questioning Obama's birth certificate, his citizenship, and his resulting eligibility for the presidency" while purportedly showing "far more respect to a conspiracy theory many times more incendiary and implausible: That the 9-11 attacks were an inside job, that the controlled demolition of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were engineered by President Bush."
  • Another 2009 post by Waters complained that the Times columnist Frank Rich "smeared the Birthers as racist with no evidence." Waters added: "Conspiratorial and wrong? Fair enough. But there's nothing necessarily racist about believing Obama was born in Kenya instead of Hawaii." It was not until 2011 that Waters finally admitted that birtherism is "discredited" -- and even then, he was still trying to equivocate by bringing up 9-11 truthers, which no serious Democratic presidential candidate, actual or potential, has ever advance, unlike with Republicans and birtherism.
  • Noel Sheppard took offense in 2009 when someone called Lou Dobbs, then with CNN, an "immigrant-hating, birther-supporting zealot," refusing to admit that birtherism was extreme: "It sure is fascinating watching all manner of media member attack anyone that has the nerve to question the new President, isn't it?"
  • Sheppard took a somewhat different view in a 2011 post complaining that MSNBC "cherry-picked something Mike Huckabee said on Steve Malzberg's radio show in order to depict the possible Republican presidential candidate as a birther" -- but then said it was "relevant" to question why Obama had purportedly refused to release his personal records, which includes his long-form birth certificate (which hadn't yet been released at the time of this post). Sheppard also uncritically repeated Huckabee's assertion that he "disavows birthers" on the first page of his book "A Simple Government." In fact, Huckabee did no such thing; all Huckabee does on the first page is acknowledge that critics claim Obama is "lying about his citizenship," adding that his book won't be about that because "I don't like to make politics personal."
  • Also in 2011, Mark Finkelstein took exception to columnist Charles Blow's claim that Donald Trump should not be allowed to spout his birther views on TV because "we know that this is not true": "Consider Blow's curious suggestion that the MSM collectively knows various things to be true, and should ban those who disagree. What else does the MSM 'know is not true'? Who else should it collectively ban from TV?"
  • In a May 2011 post, it was MRC director of media analysis Tim Graham who was rushing to the defense of birthers from racism allegations, asserting that it was "unproven."
  • When its benign birtherism/non-birtherism didn't wash, the MRC also took the interesting position of blaming birtherism on the media -- the "liberal" media, of course, not right-wing outlets like WorldNetDaily who actively promoted birtherism. A 2009 post by Jeff Poor cheered on Rep. Michele Bachmann's assertion that "the left" is pushing birther questions (and her utter lie that "You don't hear people on the right bringing this issue up") under the headline "Bachmann Makes It Clear Who Is Driving the 'Birther' Train: The Media." (Meanwhile, WND highlighted Bachmann on its "big list of eligibility 'proofers'," which shows that WND considered her an ally to its birther cause.)
  • In a 2012 post, Scott Whitlock called birther claims "untrue" and noted that CNN's Jake Tapper has pointed this out -- but he's mad that Tapper pointed out that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigned with Trump without denouncing those "untrue" claims. Later on in the presidential campaign, Brent Baker whined that news outlets "pounced on Romney for daring to make a birth certificate joke." Baker didn't offer his view on the legitimacy of birtherism.
  • Jeffrey Meyer used a 2012 post to complain that MSNBC's Chris Matthews "decided to hurl a ridiculous question about birtherism" to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling it "an issue that numerous Republicans have disavowed since the beginning."
  • Sheppard took extreme offense to MSNBC's Joan Walsh pointing out that the right-wing Breitbart website had sunk "lower than Andrew Breitbart" by advancing birther claims: "Does Walsh have absolutely no shame or respect for the dead? Is nothing sacred when it comes to getting Barack Obama reelected?" Apparently, birtherism was OK with Sheppard as long as one didn't invoke a dead person's name in criticizing it.
  • Matt Vespa complained in 2013 that "Birtherism isn't all that bad to the liberal media when a rising conservative star may be the target." He then bizarrely blamed birtherism on the media: "If only the press suspended their affection for the 44th president, and wrote these articles affirming Obama’s eligibility – and he is eligible – then perhaps we would’ve been spared the idiocy of Orly Taitz, Joseph Farah, and others, who gave some in the media to label the conservative movement as racist." Vespa is being dishonest by suggesting that non-conservative media ignored the birther issue: was pointing out that Obama's birth certificate was genuine as far back as August 2008, and the Associated Press reported in November 2008 that the state of Hawaii confirmed that Obama was born there.

If only the MRC had suspended its hatred for the 44th president for just a little while and wrote an article or two affirming Obama's eligibility, it would be more likely that the "idiocy" of Taitz, Farah, et al, could have been kept from tarring the right-wing media. But it did not -- after all, letting the accusation hang so that the president was damaged by it was more important than building the credibility of right-wing media by calling out and rejecting the falsehood-spreading extremists within.

That strategy has come back to haunt right-wing media as a whole and the MRC in particular. Because the sections of right-wing media that fancy themselves more "respectable," like the MRC (not to mention Fox News, which was also a promoter of birther claims), wouldn't aggressively shoot down the birther conspiracies when they first surfaced, birtherism has remained an issue. The MRC's silence back then means it has little basis to complain now.

Yet, complain it did when Cruz's possible presidential eligibility issues made the news again -- promoted by Donald Trump, not the "liberal media." But the "liberal media" is reporting on what Trump said, so the MRC is mad (at the media, of course, not Trump).

Scott Whitlock complained in a Jan. 7 NewsBusters post: "In 2011 and 2012, the journalists at Good Morning America railed against birther claims relating to Barack Obama, assailing the conspiracy theory as 'bizarre' and 'nonsense.' Yet, the same program lacked outrage on Thursday as Donald Trump promotes a form of birtherism against Ted Cruz." Whitlock went on to grumble: "The whole tone of the segment lacked judgment of the legitimacy of birtherism."

Of course, refusing to judge the legitimacy of birtherism was the overall tone of the MRC when the subject was Obama. Denouncements came only when 1) other conservatives were threatened with being tarred as birthers, and 2) it could find an excuse to blame the media for it.

But far be it from the MRC to let hypocrisy to get in the way of a good anti-media attack. The same day, a post by Kyle Drennen portrayed media reporting on what Trump said as "promoting" -- apparently unaware that reporting something does not equal approval of that thing -- then huffed: "While both networks were happy to portray false claims about Cruz’s citizenship as a problem for his presidential campaign, NBC and CBS routinely condemned anyone who even mentioned similar untrue birther attacks on Barack Obama."

Like Whitlock, Drennen needs to review his employer's history on birtherism. If conservatives like Brent Bozell and the MRC had acted more forcefully in saying that birther attacks on Obama were "untrue" from the get-go, the issue wouldn't have festered and then come back to haunt Cruz.

Both Whitlock and Drennen are silent, however, on right-wingers who have embraced Trump's birther attacks on Cruz, including close personal MRC friends Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. But then, as we've seen, being buddies means that the MRC will never issue any meaningful criticism of Limbaugh or Coulter, no matter how offensive their public statements become.

The MRC had an opportunity to act like responsible adults on the birther issue and set the tone that such fringe attacks had no place in the Republican Party, but it didn't -- presumably because it liked that the issue was hanging over Obama's head, just as discredited conspiracy theories like TravelGate and Vince Foster's purported murder hung over President Clinton.

What goes around comes around. The MRC ought to know that. But it doesn't -- once the Trump-Cruz birther storm had passed, it was more than happy to go back to condoning Obama birtherism.

Brad Wilmouth used a March 13 NewsBusters post to promote how a CNN anchor Poppy Harlow was "confused" by how "her guest, Ohio GOP chairman Matt Borges, turned the tables by implicating Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign in dabbling in similar mischief against her then-opponent Senator Obama." Wilmouth uncritically repeated Borges' assertion that Obama birtherism was "created by Hillary Clinton in 2008," noting only that Harlow pointed out that "Hillary Clinton never asked for the President's, you know, then-Senator Barack Obama's birth certificate."

In fact, numerous fact-checkers have found no link between Hillary Clinton and birther attacks on Obama.

USA Today/ "While it's true that some of her ardent supporters pushed the theory, there is no evidence that Clinton or her campaign had anything to do with it."

PolitiFact: "It’s an interesting bit of history that the birther movement appears to have begun with Democrats supporting Clinton and opposing Obama. But Trump, and others who have made this claim, neglect to mention that there is no direct tie to Clinton or her 2008 campaign. The story appears to have started with supporters of Clinton, an important distinction."

Washington Post: "This is simply not true. Clinton's campaign, one of the most thoroughly dissected in modern history, never raised questions about the future president's citizenship. The idea that it did is based largely on a series of disconnected actions by supporters of Clinton, mostly in the months between Obama's reaction to the Jeremiah Wright story and the Democratic National Convention. ... the Clinton campaign never pursued the idea that Obama was literally not American, and therefore ineligible for the presidency."

It would have been nice if Wilmouth was honest and told the truth. But telling the truth about Obama is simply not in the MRC's best political interest.

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