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Friday, August 15, 2008

Certifiable

Posted By on Fri, Aug 15, 2008 at 8:34 AM

I've long been a fan of the media-watchdog group Media Matters, so I felt a slight hometown thrill when I saw this item, about Pittsburgh's own Mike Pintek, last night. 

Pintek attracted MM's notice while guest-hosting on the Quinn & Rose program. (Which -- full disclosure -- used to be hosted by the parent company that owns City Paper.) Relying on such expert sources as "some people who know what they're talking about" and "a guy [who] sent me info about his belief," Pintek dredged up rumors (again) that there was something fishy about Barack Obama's birth certificate. 

"I'm still not convinced that he actually [is] a natural-born citizen," Pintek said. Though he conceded "This is not an official Republican campaign issue. It's not an official John McCain issue."

You might think that if even the McCain camp -- the folks who put Paris Hilton in a presidential election -- balks at making an issue of something, it's probably not worth digging into. But as Pintek pointed out, "[T]his keeps popping up in the blogs."

So do LOLcats, of course. I'm guessing we'll see those in a McCain ad any day now.  

The fine folks over at 2 political junkies noted this item as well, and they've previously done a fine job deconstructing the ludicrous attacks on Obama's citizenship. (See for yourself here and here.)

All I'll add to their fine work is this (fairly obvious) point. I don't think this rumor persists because anyone actually believes it. I've been a guest on Pintek's show, and I don't think he's that dumb. I think the falsehood persists because it dovetails with something that is an official Republican issue -- the attempt to suggest there is something suspect about Obama's credentials as an American. Even if everyone agreed tomorrow that the allegation was false, the residue of it would linger. And it would color future claims in a similar vein, leading uninformed voters -- i.e. many of them -- to leap to the conclusion that where there's smoke there's fire. 

Ronald Reagan's press secretary, Michael Deaver, once said, "If you tell the same story five times, it's true." I'd update that only slightly for a 21st century political campaign: If you tell five variations on the same lie, it's a "perception problem." Which gives people license to talk about it even if they know better. And which forces candidates and their backers to defend themselvse against the charge.

This can be done to anyone, of course -- it's what the pundits mean when they talk about "defining the other guy." You could do the same to McCain with respect to his treatment of women -- and probably with some justice. For Obama, you've got a weird name and an unusual ancestry, so the lies practically write themselves. This rumor is a particularly absurd example -- you hear people talking about how Hawaii, where Obama was born, isn't like a regular state -- but that just shows how easy the game can be. 

I respect Media Matters and the Junkies, and they have to do what they're doing. But this bit of nonsense has already served its purpose.

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