Birthers Unconvinced By Obama's Certificate

Guests

David Folkenflik, media correspondent, NPR
Ronald Lindsay, president and CEO, Center for Inquiry and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

Wednesday, President Obama released his long-form birth certificate and called the conspiracy theories "silliness." As the president predicted, some skeptics aren't satisfied, and question the latest document's authenticity.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Yesterday, as he released his long-form birth certificate, President Obama castigated the news media for undue attention to a story with no basis in fact. And as he predicted, the new document failed to persuade some of the so-called birthers. Once we accept a counterfactual story that the moon landing was a hoax or 9/11 a Bush administration plot, will any amount of evidence change our minds? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation in our website. That's npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We start with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, who is at our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Hey. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And you and others have noted that the more the media seemed to debunk the birther story, the more people seemed to believe it.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there's a funny thing that occurs. And when you focus on a topic, and particularly when you treat something as a matter for debate, even if you suggest in certain ways that there's strong evidence on one side - the more you treat something as a debate, the more it is presented as a topic that one can discuss and therefore it gives validity to both sides in a certain way, as a rhetorical matter.

CONAN: So it's open for argument. The other side is seemingly respectable even though the facts aren't on that side.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. I mean, you know, there - stories - there are different ways in which press handle this. The president at that press conference - it wasn't really a press conference. He made a statement to the Press Corps and then he left the rostrum there. But as the president said, you know, he said, the media has, you know, devoted during a certain week more coverage to my birth than to the budget. That wasn't true. But different elements of the media gave this very heavy coverage, particularly in recent week as Donald Trump has made a lot of noises that he might well be running for president as a Republican and that he has sent a squad of investigators - certainly not heard from, but he claims to have send this squad of investigators to Hawaii to learn more.

The media attention sometimes is a reporting of the facts, reporting of all the evidence, all of which is on the side, the president, as he said all along, was born in Hawaii on August in 1961, and sometimes it's presented as a matter of debate. And you'll hear moderators say something or, you know, opinion show hosts on cable say, oh, I believe he was born in the U.S., but why - and then the conversation and debate flows.

CONAN: And that's on some media more than others: Right-wing talk radio, some bloggers and mass emails. I guess that's a form of mass communication.

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. Well, people are no longer, you know, required by simply what's available to them to turn to the three major broadcast networks or to The New York Times and a couple other select news sources. They can get information all over. It is both ubiquitous and instantaneous, as we know, in our digital age, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. It is. But as you mentioned, it seemed to have been largely marginalized until Donald Trump made it an issue again.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. I mean, it's worth pointing out that this first surfaced during the Democratic hard-fought primary season between then-Senator Obama and then-Senator Hillary Clinton. And some of her surrogates, some of her supporters were doing opposition research, you know, saw emails that were circulating about and decided to see if it would - there was an issue here worth making something out of. It then kind of died away. There were other issues also raised about the president, was he really a Muslim, you know, was his middle name really Mohammed instead of Hussein, which it is.

He released what was, you know, the certification of birth in that period to kind of put those issues to rest, you know? Whether his religion was cited as being Muslim on that thing - this proved it. They thought - his aides say now - 12 colleagues of ours who cover the White House, say now, we thought we had dealt with that issue.

CONAN: Yet, the president felt the need to come out and try to quash it, even though as we said, he admits he's not going to be able to convince some people no matter what he does. Is this the theory that no matter how - to use the president's word - silly a story may be, you must counter it or it's going to keep growing?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, on the one hand, I mean, I guess the president is saying that this is an unserious issue during an era in which we're dealing with very serious and complicated matters facing the country's well-being. On the other hand, he clearly doesn't see this as silly at all. He sees this as a distraction. He sees this as offensive. I mean, in some ways, it's questioning his constitutional legitimacy to serve as president. And they clearly felt that there was enough of a political push and that this was taking up enough oxygen.

You mentioned about this story surfacing. You know, it had been going, sort of, as a dull war for a while back in 2009. Lou Dobbs, then on CNN, was sort of going at this night after night, saying: I believe the president was born, but we don't know. He should prove it. Donald Trump's entry really reignited this as an issue. And a lot of the coverage, a lot of the interviews didn't really contest Trump. They said, well, you know, others believe something else, but they didn't say this is fact.

George Stephanopoulos did do that. A couple of others, in more recent days - Shepard Smith of Fox News said, you know, I can say, declaratively, President Obama: a citizen of the United States.

But what a moment we're in, that a news anchor should feel compelled to say so...

CONAN: Well...

FOLKENFLIK: ...and then a president should feel compelled to release that more formal long-form, as you said.

CONAN: But there's also the question of responsibility of leaders of the other party when this becomes a political issue. And you had John Boehner, the speaker of the House, says, well, I took the president at his word. But people are free to believe whatever they want to believe, which is - some people took as permission.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. You know, there are interesting gradations there. Karl Rove, who is the great strategist for President George W. Bush when he was making his two runs for the White House and was a senior political adviser in the White House, you know, he said this demonstrates that Trump is not serious, and this is not an issue for Republicans.

Eric Cantor similarly said: I take the president at his word - if I remember his wording precisely - but, you know, said, you know, we shouldn't be dabbling in this stuff. There are other ways to criticize the president, to take him on. And yet there are others - including, you know, conservative opinion hosts and Republicans - who say, I take the president at his word, as though it's not taking the evidence, as though somehow you're saying: I'm willing to believe the man, which in a sense suggests that there's areas of doubt, but that trust is involved, as opposed to fact.

CONAN: Also with us today is Ronald Lindsay from member station WBFO in Buffalo. He's the president and CEO of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

And Ronald Lindsay, thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. RONALD LINDSAY (President and CEO, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry): It's my pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And why, sometimes, don't the facts seem to matter?

Dr. LINDSAY: It's how we process information. People will process evidence that's presented to them through the filter of their preexisting commitments. And if they are deeply attached to a certain belief - and certainly the die-hard birthers are attached to their view that President Obama was not a natural-born citizen, as they put it -it's going to be very hard to persuade them to give up that commitment, because they've invested so much emotionally in that belief that when they're presented with contrary evidence, they'll just find some way to dismiss it or discount it.

CONAN: Or incorporate it into the conspiracy.

Dr. LINDSAY: Exactly. I mean, obviously, I think fairly shortly after the long-form birth certificate was released, all sorts of suppositions were circulating about, gee, well, you know, why did it take so long? Did it take two years for the CIA to create this forgery, you know? It's not going to settle the dispute for the die-hard conspiracy theorists, because again, they've invested a lot in this. Some people have spent, you know, a couple of years working on this supposition.

And, you know, and also, the messenger here is President Obama coming out, saying that, yes, you know, this is my birth certificate. I was born in Hawaii, as this shows. Well, they already don't trust him, so they're not going to trust the message. I mean, if, in fact, someone within the birther movement were to say, okay. We've got the evidence now. This is satisfactory. We should drop it. That probably would have effect at least on some of the birthers. But given the commitment of them and given the fact that this message is being delivered by someone they have no confidence in already, it's not going to shake their beliefs.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation, David with us, David with us from San Bruno in California.

DAVID (Caller): Hey, how you're doing? Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVID: I think it ultimately comes down to a lack of scientific method. The way that conspiracy theorists ultimately do research is completely flawed. They're never going to look at the other side of the coin and accept that as any form of evidence, because they're so biased in their ways. Anything that comes up is instantly going to be debunked as, oh, well, the government's just faking that.

CONAN: David, I wonder, has there ever been a theory that you were an adherent of and then said, wait a minute, I've just found evidence to the contrary?

DAVID: Yeah, of course. I mean, I try to keep an open mind with everything. And I've talked to a lot of these conspiracy theorists, and it's just they're very, very set in their ways. So I'm not sure what we could possibly do. It's just there's always going to be a group of people that are in their beliefs.

CONAN: All right. David, thanks very much.

And I think, Ronald Lindsay, he's coming off your point: A lot of this is emotion. It's commitment to a belief. And once you're committed to it, very little is going to be able to shake that belief.

Dr. LINDSAY: Right. It's - it would take really a lot of evidence - or better yet, the evidence coming from someone within your circle. That can prove persuasive. I mean, that happens sometimes. I'm sure some of your listeners will recall back in the Clinton presidency, there was this theory - well, Clinton was involved, supposedly, in a lot of conspiracies. But one was the alleged murder of Vince Foster. That was...

CONAN: Mm-hmm, who committed suicide. Yes.

Dr. LINDSAY: Yeah. He committed suicide. But, you know, people were saying, well, somehow, either he committed suicide because he was depressed about the Whitewater fraud or maybe he was murdered by Clinton operatives. In fact, there were, as I recall, Senate hearings. It finally died down when Ken Starr - who, of course, is no friend of the Clintons - issued a report saying, look. There's nothing here. It needs to be dropped. This shouldn't be pursued anymore. And that did have an effect on, you know, taking away some, at least, of the credibility of the conspiracy theorists.

I'm sure there are still some people out there who believe in the Vince Foster conspiracy, but, as I said, it took a lot of wind out of their sails. And that would be great now if someone on the, you know, the birther side, or even someone on the conservative Republican side would step forward and say, look. It's over. We've got the birth certificate. Let's move on. And I think that would help.

CONAN: It should be fair to say, Michele Bachmann - among those considering a run for the presidency and a conservative by every description - did say that even before the long form came out. So that's to her credit.

This email from Stephen in Bakersfield: No matter what the issue, no amount of evidence will ever convince a true believer. George Orwell said, to the effect, that if you repeat a lie, often enough, it becomes the truth. Now those forwarded emails are doing this in spades.

And I guess, David Folkenflik, that goes back to this idea that without - with the brakes off the media - an unmediated media, if you will -there's always going to be places now where people can continue to echo those kinds of things.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. And, I mean, I think it's absolutely the case that people - you know, just as the genius of Facebook, in some ways, or the promise of it in certain commercial applications, is you're more likely to go buy a ticket for a movie because a friend recommends it. So, too, you know, that's where you're going to confirm certain kinds of political beliefs you have.

I would also say, you know, it's probably instructive as a counterexample to think about the CBS story about President Bush's military record back in, I guess, it was September of 2004.

You know, the outlines of the story had actually been pretty thoroughly reported in 1999 by the Boston Globe that he had not seemingly fulfilled everything that would be expected of somebody in the National Guard units that he had served in, and that there was a lot of gaps in his service record.

But what CBS appeared to rely on turned out to be seemingly fabricated or very questionable records that couldn't be verified. And, you know, that was taken apart by people who were not necessarily professional journalists at first, but, you know, out there in the hive mind of the Web.

And, you know, a certain degree of skepticism of the press is probably warranted in the sense that people have to be able to verify what they've done. But in that case, the questioning led to the unraveling of evidence. In this case, every scrap of evidence supported the president's version, and there was not a single scrap of real evidence in any other account.

CONAN: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, with us from our bureau in New York. We're also speaking with Ronald Lindsay, president and CEO at the Center for Inquiry and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And this email from Minnie Jean(ph) in - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - in Little Rock: I believe this entire birther, college records, et cetera smacks a blatant racism, and nothing else. President Obama has been a victim of racism since his candidacy. Will we ever understand this, media, NPR? Will Americans ever have that authentic conversation? Racism is an American illness that has plagued us for centuries. No amount of framing the issue as political or partisan will erase the truth of racism.

And, David Folkenflik, some saw racism, certainly, in the allegation about the legitimacy of the president's citizenship. Some saw it more -as the emailer suggested - in Donald Trump's more recent suggestion that the president's college grades were not good enough to get him into Harvard.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there's this notion that has sort of moved from the language of people who study rhetoric to political circles and journalistic ones of dog whistles, and that's the idea that you're making a statement that maybe the general public will hear as a criticism, and a certain element of the public will tie into as a - or feed into as, yeah, that's talking to my discrimination.

I certainly think it's fair to say that not everybody who has doubts about the president in a variety of ways - you know, whether he's - they question his religious faith, whether they question his birth - is racist. On the other hand, it certainly feeds into those who seek to somehow delegitimize him by the notion that somehow he's alien to America, he's outside the mainstream.

We've heard that theme again and again and again, the idea that he comes from an African father and a white mother from the heart of America, you know? He has tied that into a very American story, and there are others who would depict him as very anti-American. And it's a little tough to disentangle from certain strands of that most vehement rhetoric certain kinds of xenophobic or racial elements.

CONAN: Let's see if we can quickly go to Aaron, Aaron with us from New Orleans.

And Aaron, we just have a minute or so left.

AARON (Caller): Okay. Hi. Yeah. Well, I'm in the heart of the anti-Obama movement in Louisiana, and what I've witnessed is the majority of people who are claiming to be birthers don't really believe the claims. They just use it as a discrediting tactic. They don't actually think he was born elsewhere, but they'll stick to that as long as they can with the belief that the more they promote it, the more it discredits him as a person.

CONAN: Ronald Lindsay, is that your opinion?

Dr. LINDSAY: I would say - well, in any movement, you're going to have a variety of different viewpoints, a variety of different motivations. But I think, certainly, the core, die-hard birthers are sincere in their belief. They're certainly acting in ways that are sincere, including their reactions to the long-form birth certificate that was released.

They're acting in the kind of predictable way that any conspiracy theorist would act, and that is to - as I say - somehow discount or dismiss the evidence or to change the conversation as, you know, Trump did, you know? It's not now just about whether he, you know, had a right birth certificate. But now we need to look at his college transcripts.

So that's a common pattern that you have with any of these deep-seated attachments - not just conspiracy theorists. I mean, you're probably aware that the Rapture is predicted, I think, for May 21st. It's not gonna...

CONAN: I've heard that. It's not going to happen. I'll go out on a limb and predict that. Ronald Lindsay, thank you very much.

Ronald Lindsay, president of the Center for Skeptical Inquiry, with us from WBFO, our member station in Buffalo. And, of course, David Folkenflik, thanks, as always, for your time.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

CONAN: David Folkenflik, NPR's media correspondent, with us from our bureau in New York.

Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with Ira Flatow. We'll see you again on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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