Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Losing sight of the big picture

This morning, President Obama released his long-form birth certificate. Yes, really, that happened. The democratically-elected leader of the free world, who happens to be the first Black President of this predominantly-White nation, had to produce his papers, thanks to a long-running campaign of misinformation and lies spread by Fox News and the Republican/Tea Party, most recently brought to the forefront by the asinine, apparent GOP Presidential hopeful and front-runner, Donald Trump and the media hordes that follow this joker.
The day was dominated by reactions from various sides. Thinking back over the day, I felt that we are losing sight of the bigger picture, focusing instead on minutiae. To wit:

1. Many in my Twitter timeline, dominated by liberals/Democrats, blasted Trump for playing to birthers who seem to dominate the GOP primary electorate. I humbly submit that Trump is just an opportunist, exploiting the latent racism and Islamophobia that underlies birtherism.
Note also that birtherism has a history much longer than Trump's involvement, thanks to Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, the Hillary Clinton primary campaign, and the sly nod-and-wink responses of Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders. When there are official documents available, one does not need to "take the President at his word."

2. Yesterday, progressive activist Nicole Sandler was arrested for creating a ruckus at Rep. Allen West's townhall. She later compared her temporary incarceration to Pfc Bradley Manning's solitary confinement. Defenders of President Obama on the Manning/Wikileaks issue were offended, and chastised Ms Sandler. This comparison by Ms Sandler is minor compared to the fact that an American, a resident of the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free, was put in prison for questioning her Congressman. At least, I'd like to think so.

3. Finally, the issue that really brought up this post. Jake Tapper is a fine journalist with a well-deserved reputation, e.g. see his pieces at on the Iraq War, e.g. this, or on Dubya's drunken sailor economics. Tapper's first report on today's marquee event appropriately calls birtherism "nonsense." But two hours later, he pens this report:
And what was the President lying about? That two weeks ago, the media focused on the birther story (thanks to Trump), rather than the budget battle between POTUS and GOP Rep. Paul Ryan. Tapper uses data from Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism to show that two weeks ago, the economy was indeed the main story by far. Ergo, the President lied.
But take a closer look at the Pew reports. The report, as quoted by Tapper himself, also states:
“The week was also marked by another sign that the media are gearing up for the campaign—rumors about Obama’s national origin resurfaced, this time from tycoon Donald Trump, a potential GOP contender for the presidential nomination. These questions made up much of the coverage that focused on the Obama administration, a topic that accounted for another 4% of the newshole.”
True, that 4% of the newshole may be a small fraction, and so far, Tapper is right. But take a look at Pew's report for last week:
Headline for April 18-24, 2011: "Trump pushes the 2012 race into the news"
And how did Trump do that?
For the week of April 18-24, the 2012 presidential race emerged as a big story, more than doubling its previous high water mark this year. It accounted for 8% of the newshole studied by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, making it the third-biggest story in the news last week. And a closely related story (at 3%) involved attention to Obama himself, with a particular focus on the “birther” movement that questions whether the president was born in the U.S.

In both cases, that was due in large part to the attention garnered by real estate developer, reality TV star and now possible presidential candidate Trump—who has embraced the birther issue and become the rising star of the GOP presidential field.

Indeed, Trump was the week’s second leading newsmaker behind Obama, registering as a dominant figure in 4% of all the week’s stories. That is six times more attention than the next most-covered potential GOP contender, Sarah Palin, generated last week.
Among the news organizations that carried Trump stories: Tapper's own ABC, including Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, with prime-time coverage and an interview.
I have no idea what the prime-time breakdown of the Pew's stories are, but if Trump is getting prime-time press coverage, fueled largely by his pandering to birtherism, seems to me the President has a very good case for stating that the press is focused on a triviality rather than more important issues. (I won't even go into the Ed Henry WH presser question, right after CNN themselves comprehensively debunked the birther claim.)

But all that said and done, Tapper's reaction to the President's speech stands in stark contrast to this visceral, oh-so-appropriate reaction from Baratunde Thurston, the web editor for The Onion:

Perhaps Tapper, as an objective journalist, does not have the freedom or perspective that Thurston does. But Thurston's reaction shows exactly why today is a shame not just for the GOP and Fox News, but all of America; that is the real story of the day.
I admire and respect Tapper. Maybe, that piece was a defensive reaction to something he knows is just wrong with the way news organizations like ABC helped sustain these ridiculous lies; deny Trump press coverage on this issue, and Trump will lose interest in birtherism or transcript-erism like the publicity whore he is.

Maybe, just as Tapper wrote that President lied about the Press, he will write about how the press was complicit in spreading lies about the President.

Maybe the rest of us will remember the big picture, and not get distracted by minutiae.

Good night, and good luck.

Update 1: Jake Tapper responds:

"1) that wasn't my "reaction." 2) It was 1 blog post, a fraction of our coverage of the issue yesterday."
When I wrote this post, I looked up Tapper's blog on the ABC website. I saw three pieces directly related to the birth certificate release; the two I cited above, and a video report, which seemed similar to the first story. (The other stories were on President Obama's birther-related jokes at fundraisers, and the CIA/SecDef appointments.)
If Tapper had cited last week's Pew report, as I did above, his second blog would have come off as an objective "correcting the President's error" - yes, he was wrong, but we cannot deny the rising tide that is the Trump media circus. Without that, the second blog looks factual, yes, but still a defensive reaction.

Update 2: Via Taegan Goddard: "Trump leads Republican field." Chalk one up for birtherism and the media circus...

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