Why Has the News Media Largely Ignored Trump’s ‘Birtherism’?


obama trumpThere is no doubt that most of the mainstream news media does not want Donald Trump to be president (though many in that group are probably tempted by the ratings he would provide them). However, I have been struck by the rather horrible job, at least so far, that they have been doing to ensure this is the result.

There are many devastating stories from Trump’s relevant past which have been largely ignored or at least somewhat diminished in favor of the rather feckless “what politically incorrect thing did Trump say today?” narrative. For instance, how the news media has not spent nearly as much time putting pressure on Trump regarding his tax returns as they have on Hillary Clinton’s email scandals is as baffling to me as Lena Dunham’s reaction to famous athletes not hitting on her.

But perhaps the most amazing example of the news media largely letting Trump off the hook regarding a topic which should be a clear disqualifier for the presidency is his “Birtherism” crusade against President Barack Obama. If there ever was an episode which has proven that someone should not hold any elected office, especially that of “Leader of the Free World,” this is it.

To review, Trump, over an extended period of time, went way out of his way to claim that he had proof that the sitting president of the United States, was not really born in the country and therefore might not be constitutionally eligible to hold the office. He did this well after there was already plenty of evidence that this conspiracy theory was absurd.

He also, according to The New York Times, lied about having investigators which had uncovered important new data on the topic. He was then utterly humiliated when Obama finally released his long-form birth certificate. Proving, just as newspaper articles at the time of his birth had indicated, that Obama was indeed born in Hawaii. (As an important aside, I actually think Trump and the “Birthers” missed the real story there as I believe that Obama lied about being born outside the United States, possibly for college entrance purposes and clearly to create a more compelling narrative about himself, at a time when he was a relative nobody. That is why there was once a book proposal put out on his behalf claiming he was born in Kenya)

In a rational world, someone who was that wrong (especially in a way that could be easily interpreted as “racist”) would have had their reality TV show cancelled. The idea of that person even considered running for president just four years after being exposed as such an obvious fraud would be preposterous (of course, Mitt Romney publicly accepting his endorsement soon after this episode is largely to blame for wiping the stench from Trump in respectable conservative circles). Instead, in some important ways, this debacle actually paved the way for him to win the GOP nomination.

You see, to people with a clue, Trump’s romance with “Birtherism” forever revealed him to be, at best, a scam artist and, at worst, a conspiracy nut-job, but to a significant portion of the Republican base this made him a hero with YUGE “street cred.” To them, Trump was now the only prominent person with the “balls” to stand up and “tell it like it is” regarding this black man who was “fundamentally transforming” their country.

This meant in the primaries the issue gave Trump an immediate base of support from which to build. Meanwhile, the “conservative” media pretended it never happened because debunking “Birtherism” has never been good business for them, while Trump’s campaign clearly was. The mainstream media ignored the issue probably thinking that they could save it for the general election when non-conservative voters might actually care and it would be far more lethal (The New York Times investigation was published after Trump had safely secured the nomination).

Ironically, this dynamic is remarkably similar to the “Reverend Wright” issue which Obama briefly faced in the 2008 primaries. Then the mainstream news media acted like their light rinse of a story which should have eliminated Obama from the race would be revisited in the general election. However, thanks largely to John McCain feeling bizarrely pressured that raising the issue would somehow be “racist,” that never happened.

Now, with Trump making a belatedly and almost certainly ill-fated attempt to appeal to black voters in the last few days, the issue has somewhat resurfaced. Trump scolded a local reporter for asking him about it, laughably insisting that he doesn’t talk about the subject any more (I’ll bet Hillary would love to be able to get away with that gambit regarding her email scandal!). Then Rudy Giuliani insisted on CNN that Trump should not apologize for his “Birtherism.” (By the way, Giuliani claiming “Birtherism” began with Hillary is a typical right-wing canard. Hillary “supporters” may have started the movement, but not her or her campaign. I find it hilarious that Trump supporters somehow take comfort knowing he took a very low-level leftist conspiracy theory and gave it real life in a way which humiliated him.)

It is my view that much of the public either has very limited knowledge of Trump’s role in this fiasco, or has completely forgotten it. It is not as if this is ancient history or not directly related to his judgement to be president of the Unites States (especially when his “racist” rhetoric has been an issue and he has so far refused to engage in the type of record transparency he demanded from Obama by simply releasing his tax returns).

So why has the media not obsessed over an issue which would seem to achieve many of their objectives?

The conspiratorial theory is that the news media wants/needs the race to remain “close” until the very end for ratings purposes and are simply saving this and other deadly issues for if/when they need to really take Trump out at the end of the campaign. While I think this theory is plausible, and consistent with the reality that Trump tends to get worse coverage as he does better in the polls, it probably gives the news media too much credit.

The more likely explanation is that the definition of “news” in our short-attention- span culture dictates that unless there is a compelling “hook” to discuss an issue on that particular day, then it just never happens (“Look, Trump just tweeted something weird!”). With that in mind, Trump deciding not to talk at all about this issue may be the smartest thing he has done in the general election. I will be curious to see whether the news media ultimately lets him get away with it.

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John Ziegler is a nationally-syndicated radio talk show host and documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at johnz@mediaite.com.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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