When thinking about how the birth-certificate fiasco reached such fever-pitch, leading the President of the United States to take to a podium and prove his citizenship, we shouldn’t give racism and irresponsible politicians all the credit. Certainly, this racially-fueled conspiracy wouldn’t have gotten far with a white president; and conservative politicians have welcomed the birther conspiracy as a way to undermine his legitimacy. But the culprit who should really feel ashamed is the media.
Rick Perlstein has a great piece in Mother Jones right now on why lies and conspiracies dominate our political culture today. Here's how it starts:
It takes two things to make a political lie work: a powerful person or institution willing to utter it, and another set of powerful institutions to amplify it. The former has always been with us...So why does it seem as if we're living in a time of overwhelmingly brazen deception? What's changed?
Today's marquee fibs almost always evolve the same way: A tree falls in the forest—say, the claim that Saddam Hussein has "weapons of mass destruction," or that Barack Obama has an infernal scheme to parade our nation's senior citizens before death panels. But then a network of media enablers helps it to make a sound—until enough people believe the untruth to make the lie an operative part of our political discourse.
The birther story fits in here too. According to the Washington Post, Obama decided to retrieve his birth certificate after an interview with George Stephanopoulos, in which important policy questions were subbed out for questions about his birth certificate. Did the media start the conspiracy? No, but they talked about it enough that it became mainstream. When Donald Trump began his fake presidential candidacy by talking about the president's nationality, the media welcomed the attention-grabbing conspiracy back into the public debate rather than asking him serious questions (with this hilarious exception).
In the last year, belief that Obama is not American has ticked up 5 percent to 25 percent of the population and 45 percent of Republicans. Certainly, right-wing media plays a major role in this. But it's important to note, when assigning blame, that these lies don’t go this far without the help of big media institutions.