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Eric Deggans

Nonsense damages political discourse

For those of us who believe the media reveal deep-seated truths about society, President Barack Obama's response Wednesday to the allegations he wasn't born in America cracked open a treasure trove of bitter lessons.

Obama handled the news conference itself deftly, placing most of the blame squarely on the shoulders of the news media. Opening his speech with a jab at the TV networks' pre-emption of regular programming, he urged the country to focus on more substantive issues and avoid the "carnival barkers" pushing paranoid conspiracy theories.

The Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism noted that birther stories were about 4 percent of the news mix in major media the week of April 11, during the time Obama described. Last week, that figure jumped to 8 percent.

Left unmentioned was the man who recently kick-started this conversation, Donald Trump. Similarly overlooked: poll numbers cited by NBC News showing an increasing number of Republicans falling for the chatter.

Call it a bit of political/media jujitsu. Rather than blame possible voters for buying well-discredited birther allegations, Obama dumped scorn on an institution he knows conservatives hate, too: the news media.

He's also thrown down a gauntlet to journalists, telling them bluntly: If we keep talking about this conspiracy, it's because of your coverage.

Who would have suspected, basking in the world-changing spirit from the election of America's first black president in 2008, that three years later he would call a national address to refute continually debunked allegations about his birthplace?

It's an odd dance. The president must pretend the spread of birther talk is mostly about the news media, though some people are falling for it. And the media pretend the controversy has little to do with their willingness to give Donald Trump airtime, regardless of how bald-faced his lies are.

The real lesson here for media covering the 2012 elections: It's time to shake off our addiction to celebrity and conflict in coverage before it does some real damage.

Now that Trump has proved he can push America's uneasiness with its biracial president to the brink of polite conversation, he's ready to try another tack — implying the leader of the Free World is America's biggest affirmative action hire.

Days earlier, Trump wondered about the president's academic record and how he earned admission to Harvard. Wednesday, he doubled down on that talk, congratulating himself for playing "such a big role" in producing a full-length birth record from the White House.

There was no mention of Trump's insistence on CNN Monday night that Obama's birth certificate was missing or that the president spent millions of dollars hiding it or that his grandmother said he was born in Kenya before correcting herself — all long-discredited tropes of the birther conspiracy he has replayed in recent weeks.

Having failed to prove the president isn't "one of us" Americans, Trump is now seeking to invalidate his accomplishments, often the Plan B for bigots looking to prove people of color really haven't achieved anything.

To serve his ego or his career, Trump seems willing to crack open the worst elements of prejudice, covered by the thinnest veneer of politeness. No real politician could try this high-wire act without risking a fate similar to that of recently undeclared presidential candidate Haley Barbour, and it's telling that even the GOP's most extreme voices (Sarah Palin, Rep. Michele Bachmann, et al.) are only tepidly backing The Donald's play.

Continuing on this path will only ensure further distraction, turning GOP voters toward the fantasy of Trump's dishonest allegations.

At a time when the economy is still limping along and Congress is tied in knots, the best and brightest Republicans should be climbing all over each other for a shot at the president who has to take responsibility for it all.

That Trump is the loudest voice on the right today is a gift that keeps on giving for Democrats.

Could the real conspiracy be that Trump really wants Democrats to win in 2012?

Nonsense damages political discourse 04/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 7:22pm]
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