President Obama chided the news media Wednesday for continuing to focus national attention on the non-issue of his American citizenship. "Fascinating how many of Obama's birther remarks…were aimed at the media for stoking this," tweeted Howard Kurtz shortly after the speech.
The birth certificate issue was a distraction, Obama stated, and the White House decision to release his long-form birth certificate was an attempt to re-focus national attention on the important issues, specifically his budget proposal. But which media outlets were most guilty of sustaining attention on the issue? On cable news, at least, the answer runs contrary to the usual media narrative.
As it turns out, one was 35 times more likely to hear about the birther issue on CNN or MSNBC than on Fox News during the week of April 11 through 17, when Obama was touting his budget. The cable network most often railed against as the birther-enabler was least likely - by far - to even mention the issue.
Here's what Obama had to say during his post-birth certificate release press conference:
…two weeks ago, when the Republican House had put forward a budget that will have huge consequences potentially to the country, and when I gave a speech about my budget and how I felt that we needed to invest in education and infrastructure and making sure that we had a strong safety net for our seniors even as we were closing the deficit, during that entire week the dominant news story wasn’t about these huge, monumental choices that we’re going to have to make as a nation. It was about my birth certificate. And that was true on most of the news outlets that were represented here.
It's worth noting that the president's statement was factually inaccurate. The dominant news story during the week after his budget address was, as one might expect, the economy. In fact, the Obama administration only accounted for about four percent of media chatter during that week - behind unrest in the Middle East and natural disasters in Japan, in addition to the economy - and only a portion of that four percent had to do with his birth certificate.
That data was gathered by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, which also calculated those numbers for cable news coverage during that week. As quoted by Poynter:
including “The Ed Show,” “Hardball,” “The Last Word,” and “The Rachel Maddow Show”
- 28% of airtime studied was devoted to the 2012 election
- 10% of airtime studied was devoted to Obama
- A subset of that Obama airtime was coded “citizenship and religion rumors” to include “birther” coverage, which was 92% of the Obama coverage
including “Special Report w/Bret Baier,” “Fox Report w/Shepard Smith,” “The O’Reilly Factor,” “Hannity”
- 16% of airtime studied was devoted to 2012 election
- 5% of airtime studied was devoted to Obama
- A subset of that Obama airtime was coded “citizenship and religion rumors” to include “birther” coverage, which was 8% of the Obama coverage
including “The Situation Room,” “John King, USA,” “In The Arena,” and “Anderson Cooper 360″
- 11% of airtime studied was devoted to 2012 election
- 5% of airtime studied was devoted to Obama
- A subset of that Obama airtime was coded “citizenship and religion rumors” to include “birther” coverage, which was 100% of the Obama coverage.
Ace crunched the numbers and found the following breakdown of birther stories as a percentage of total coverage for each cable news channel:
- Fox News: 0.4 percent
- MSNBC: 9.2 percent
- CNN: 5 percent
MSNBC devoted 23 times as much airtime as Fox to cover the birther issue. CNN devoted 12.5 times as much. So, as mentioned above, one was 35.5 times more likely to see a birther story on Fox's competition than on FNC itself.
Ace also makes this key point:
Now one can note, rightly, that MSNBC and CNN were always knocking, knocking down this issue. Fine. But who was distracted by this? If, as Obama says, this was a "distraction" from "real issues" and therefore "silliness" -- which network(s) fed their partisan viewers a steady diet of this silliness?
Which network fed them the least of it and, therefore, kept a better focus on things that were not silly?
Of course even Fox News did its part to debunk the birther nonsense. The channel's hosts of course played no part in the conspiracy theory, but its commentators also frequently spoke out against it. "Special Report" conservative panelists, Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes, routinely opined on its absurdities. FNC contributor Karl Rove certainly did his part to combat the conspiracy theory.
Unfortunately, simply by giving a megaphone to Donald Trump - the personality who undergirded much of the birther coverage of late - news networks implicitly gave voice to the conspiracy theory. Simply ignoring the theory is generally the best way to combat it, and Fox led the field in that regard (on cable news, anyway). MSNBC, meanwhile, not only led the charge to promote the certificate hunt, it also promoted Donald Trump, host of sister network NBC's "The Apprentice" - a fact that recently earned the cable channel the ire of its own on-air talent.
In a Thursday column, New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter concurred with the view that simply covering the birther "issue" perpetuated the conspiracy theory. Stelter wrote:
In waves of media coverage — the vast majority of it critical of the so-called “birther” position — reporters tried to debunk those theories. But opinion polls found that doubts among Americans about his citizenship grew over time, as if the very fact of the debate caused the issue to fester in more minds.