Birthers vs. Truthers: The New York Times's Double Standard on Conspiracy Theories

Real estate mogul Donald Trump, acting like a presidential candidate, is garnering attention by latching on to the “birther” issue -- the discredited notion that President Obama was not born in Hawaii but in another country, thus making him ineligible for the presidency. The New York Times ran a poll April 22 that asked: “Do you think Barack Obama was born in the United States, or was he born in another country?” The Times then broke down the results out for Republicans (but not for independents or Democrats): 45% of Republicans answered Obama was born elsewhere, 33% said he was born in the United States.

Meanwhile, the Times has yet to bring up a 2006 poll showing more than half of Democrats believed Bush was complicit in the 9-11 attacks.

Times liberal columnist Charles Blow pounced on Saturday: “It further exacerbates a corrosive culture on the right that now celebrates the Cult of Idiocy -- from Glenn Beck to Michele Bachmann -- where riling liberals is more valuable than reason and logic, and where intellectualism and even basic learnedness are viewed with suspicion and contempt.”

A recent nytimes.com Room for Debate online roundtable, “The Psychology of the 'Birther' Myth,” hosted seven experts about the psychology of the myth. The introduction:

Hawaii state officials have repeatedly confirmed President Obama's birth in Honolulu, and his Hawaiian birth certificate has long been made public. Yet doubts about where Mr. Obama was born persist among a segment of Americans, despite all factual evidence.

A New York Times/CBS News Poll released on Thursday found that 45 percent of Republicans think that Mr. Obama was born in another country, while 33 percent said he was born in America.

Several states are now considering bills to require presidential candidates to provide certified proof that they were born in the United States before they can appear on the ballot. Arizona's governor vetoed the bill there, but Oklahoma lawmakers and those in Georgia are moving forward with similar legislation.

What drives this kind of false political belief and why is it so hard to dispel?

The Times even allowed the story to seep into its student section:

Students: Tell us what you think about the “birther” movement. Why do you think so many people believe that President Obama was not born in the United States despite factual evidence that he was? With which of the seven experts polled in the Room for Debate post do you most agree? For instance, do you think the root of this belief is “racial resentment”? The popularity of conspiracy theories in general and the way they are spread by modern media? Or is it because of the “increasingly disconnected ideological echo chambers” that have polarized us as a society?

Yet compare the Times’s current contempt for birthers to reporter Alan Feuer’s notoriously positive June 5, 2006 profile of a far more pernicious anti-Republican conspiracy theory believed by many Democrats: That the Bush administration either knew or was actually instigated the 9-11 attacks that killed over 3,000 Americans. The text box said of the conference: “Some participants see an American tradition of questioning concentrated power.”

Feuer painted the lefties in non-threatening, almost affectionate terms:

“...a group that, in its rank and file, includes professors, chain-saw operators, mothers, engineers, activists, used-book sellers, pizza deliverymen, college students, a former fringe candidate for United States Senate and a long-haired fellow named hummux (pronounced who-mook) who, on and off, lived in a cave for 15 years.”

The Times also has yet to bring up the results of a 2006 poll from Ohio University and Scripps Howard news service showing more than half of Democrats believed Bush was complicit in the 9-11 attacks. As reported by Ben Smith at Politico:

...the University of Ohio yesterday shared with us the crosstabs of a 2006 poll they did with Scripps Howard that's useful in that regard.

"How likely is it that people in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East?" the poll asked.

A full 22.6% of Democrats said it was "very likely." Another 28.2% called it "somewhat likely."

A nytimes.com search suggests the paper has only referenced the Ohio University findings once in a news story, an August 22, 2008 story by Eric Lipton discussing “conspiracy theorists” but not singling out Democrats and Bush-haters as the chief advocates.

Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center . Read more: http://archive.newsbusters.org/bios/clay-waters.html#ixzz3CdgxLFgQ