Privileging the Opposition
Howard Kurtz finally opened his trap about the Birther movement yesterday on CNN, actually appearing to understand the issue.
On his Reliable Sources show today, CNN’s Howard Kurtz criticized Dobbs and others in the media who have given airtime to the “fringe of the fringe” that is the “birther” crowd. “These are ludicrous claims, there is no factual basis for them,” said Kurtz. “Why give the birthers any airtime?” He then specifically criticized Dobbs for not acting “responsible”:
KURTZ: Callie Crossley, Lou Dobbs on his radio show said, “I believe the president is a citizen of the United States.” But he keeps raising these questions, complaining about criticism from “limp-minded, lily-livered lefties.” Is it responsible for Dobbs and others to go on the air, talk about these claims, demand proof, when we have seen a copy of the birth certificate? When Hawaii officials say that Barack Obama was born there in 1961?
CROSSLEY: It absolutely is not responsible.
"Giving airtime" is precisely the point. The news media, whether legitimizing the Birthers or disputing them, have paid far more attention to them than they ever did the 9-11 Truthers or any other crazy and actually irrelevant conspiracy theorists:
Ask yourself this: What would have happened if, in July of 2002, Lou Dobbs would have conducted respectful interviews with various Truthers, in the course of which Dobbs called on the Bush administration to prove by documentary evidence that the U.S. government hadn’t actually carried out the 9/11 attacks?
The answer is obvious: Dobbs would have been fired before the next morning—which is another way of saying that it’s inconceivable that he or any other mainstream media figure would ever do such a thing. Similarly, it’s equally inconceivable that any Democratic member of Congress would go on a program like Hardball and repeatedly refuse to say whether he rejected the idea that the Bush administration was behind the 9/11 attacks.
The short answer is that conservative media figures and politicians are essentially afraid of and courteous to the craziest part of their right-wing base, while liberal politicians hold them in contempt. This is true even in those cases where the "conspiracy" has a fair bit of evidence, say, in the stolen election in Florida in 2000.
I don't doubt that the Birther issue is a headache for the GOP, but they respond to it seriously, giving it some breathing space, rather than self-loathing Democrats like Collin Peterson, who are so contemptuous of their own citizens that they'd rather cancel all access to their constituents.
Out-party politicians have long had to deal with conspiracy theorists on their side — the people who think that the Clintons killed Vince Foster or that the Bush administration helped orchestrate the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Twenty-five percent of my people believe the Pentagon and Rumsfeld were responsible for taking the twin towers down,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat who represents a conservative Republican district in Minnesota. “That’s why I don’t do town meetings.”
Now I don't want to get into an argument about which crazy conspiracy theorists get more respect from official discourse. But this doesn't stop there. It seeps into the mainstream in other ways, on other issues. The best recent example concerns Chris Matthews' harping on abortion funding in the health care bill based on 100% conservative framing, plucked out of The Weekly Standard (by his own admission):
MSNBC's Chris Matthews is illustrative of the approach to the topic some have taken. Matthews, who acknowledges his approach to this topic has been shaped by the conservative Weekly Standard, has made his opposition to coverage for abortion clear, claiming President Obama "says they're going to reduce the number of abortions, and that same week he pushes to subsidize abortion? You can't do that."
On a recent Hardball, Matthews questioned Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch about the topic, asking leading questions that encouraged them to state their opposition to insurance coverage of abortion. But Matthews didn't ask them -- and hasn't asked any other guest -- one simple question: Why shouldn't abortions be covered, given that the procedure is legal? Nor has he asked if there are any other legal procedures that shouldn't be covered.
Instead, Matthews has adopted the premise that taxpayer funds shouldn't be used to pay for abortions, no matter how indirectly, because some taxpayers believe abortion to be immoral. On Wednesday's Hardball, for example, Matthews asked Obama adviser David Axelrod: "[I]f the federal government spends money on abortions, that means people who believe abortion is evil would be forced to have their tax money go to pay for abortions. How do you justify that?"
That premise is only superficially compelling, and has no business underlying an impartial news report. After all, millions of Americans believe the death penalty and wars of choice are immoral. But the moral beliefs of pacifists and death penalty opponents are not granted the privilege the media grants opposition to legal abortion -- and so you rarely see a news report premised on the idea that taxpayer funding for war or capital punishment is inappropriate.
How the Birther issue has been handled in Washington is a teachable moment, one that shows how the Beltway remains wired for conservatives, no matter how crazy.