Chuck Todd expected to take the morning off. But the vacationing NBC White House correspondent says he received a “frantic call” Wednesday informing him that President Barack Obama would soon make an unexpected stop in the briefing room.
Todd knew that the administration had briefed reporters off-camera earlier on Obama’s just-released “long form” birth certificate, but on his way to the White House, Todd says he still expected the president to focus on the major reshuffling of his national security team.
But Todd learned shortly before Obama took the podium that the remarks were all about the birth certificate. “It’s an extraordinary moment—kind of shocking and surreal,” Todd told “Today” show co-host Matt Lauer, who had just broken into a segment on the royal wedding to go to the special report live from the White House. Reporters were “scratching their heads” in the briefing room at the news, Todd said.
Obama heard Todd’s report on his way to the podium, and sensing an opening, once again took on a familiar and easy target: the media.
"Let me just comment, first of all, on the fact that I can't get the networks to break in on all kinds of other discussions," he said. "I was just back there listening to Chuck—he was saying, it’s amazing that he’s not going to be talking about national security. I would not have the networks breaking in if I was talking about that, Chuck, and you know it."
Obama, in the role of media-critic-in-chief, said he was not only addressing the American people about the absurd and long-ago debunked conspiracy theory that he wasn’t born in the United States. He was also speaking to the press.
"We do not have time for this kind of silliness,” Obama said. “We’ve got better stuff to do. I’ve got better stuff to do."
Obama’s remarks Wednesday built upon his -- and the administration’s -- long-standing critique of the media as being overly focused on trivial non-issues that may stir up partisan debate, inflate cable ratings and online traffic numbers but do little in terms of actually informing the public.
Over the past couple years, the president has likened cable news to "WWF wrestling," dismissed "cable chatter" as “petty and trivial,” called out the Beltway press corps for its obsession with who’s up and down, lamented for the lack of journalists following in the footsteps of Walter Cronkite and told graduating college students last year that they're “coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t rank all that high on the truth meter.”
Obama didn't need to personally walk reporters through the administration's birth certificate debunking. An hour before he took the podium, press secretary Jay Carney, communications director Dan Pfeiffer and White House counsel Bob Bauer addressed the administration’s reasoning for now making the “long form” version public -- three years after the Obama campaign posted a copy of his birth certificate online that satisfied independent fact-checkers but not conspiracy theorists, later dubbed “birthers" -- in an off-camera briefing to reporters.
Pfeiffer said the issue had come up again, when “the discussion transcended from the nether regions of the Internet into mainstream political debate in this country."
“It became something that when both Republicans and Democrats were talking to the media they were asked about,” he continued. “It was a constant discussion on mainstream news organizations. And the president believed that it was becoming a distraction from the major issues we're having in this country.”
Pfeiffer told reporters that Obama would “use this as an opportunity to make a larger point about what this debate says about our politics.” And he did make a point about politics, but largely through the lens of the news media.
While the "birther" story hasn't dominated the media of late, as Obama claimed Wednesday, real-estate mogul and possible 2012 Republican contender Donald Trump has generated a significant uptick in attention to the issue. Over the past month, Trump's received twice as much media coverage as any potential Republican candidate, according to statistics from Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism provided to The Huffington Post. And Trump, never one to shy away from a camera, has repeatedly suggested in interviews that Obama may not have been born in the United States.
Some of Trump's "birther" claims, like those made in an interview with "Today" co-host Meredith Vieira, went largely unchallenged. Other media figures, like CNN's Anderson Cooper, refuted Trump on-air during a two-day invalidation of the "birther" myth.
But whether giving Trump a pass or disputing his claims, the media kept the story alive. CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry even asked about Obama's birth certificate controversy during Tuesday's press briefing, despite his CNN colleague's thorough debunking the night before.
In the short term, Obama's appearance in the briefing room Wednesday makes it unlikely White House reporters will ask Carney about the birth certificate again. But will the president's critique have any long-term effect on chasing similar non-stories?
“I think so," Carney told The Huffington Post. "I think most of the reporters who cover the White House are serious and prefer to cover serious issues.”
ABC News' Jake Tapper certainly doesn't think of the "birther" story as a serious issue and said Obama was right to criticize those keeping the myth alive.
“One of the biggest problems is how many reporters have treated this as if it’s a subject for debate and not just a lie,” Tapper said in an interview.
“Instead of covering this the same way you would cover someone saying that the earth is flat -- just a demonstrable untruth -- too many reporters and anchors have allowed this to become ‘critics say X,’” Tapper continued.
Still, Tapper disagreed with Obama’s contention that the networks wouldn’t have covered him speaking about major administration moves, such as Leon Panetta becoming Secretary of Defense and Gen. David Petraeus assuming his role as CIA Director. (On his blog, Tapper also shot down Obama’s claim that the birth certificate story dominated the news cycle.)
“We cover national security all the time,” said Tapper, who incidentally just won the prestigious Merriman Smith award for his national security reporting. “I think the president makes the mistake that too many make [in speaking about] the media writ large: like we’re all one organization, that we all do the same things, and agree with all the same things.”
Todd, in an interview with The Huffington Post, similarly agreed the “birther” story was ridiculous. But he also took issue with any knee-jerk reaction to simply blame "the media."
“My only beef with media criticism these days is people want to lump in what [NBC anchor] Brian Williams does -– what we do on “NBC Nightly News” and on the “Today” show –- with [Fox News hosts] Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly."
These days, “the media” defies easy categorization. Is everything published online --whether from establishment journalists, Sarah Palin on Facebook, a fringe political blogger, or anonymous commenter -- part of today's media? What about cable and radio hosts, newspaper columnists, wire service reporters or amateur journalists breaking news on Twitter?
Todd said the distinction between news and “infotainment” is increasingly less clear to the average viewer. And given the blurring of that line, Todd said the “so-called mainstream media” doesn’t have the power it once did to easily ignore bogus stories that will inevitably make the rounds over the airwaves and online.
“There was a time when you could starve these stories. You could starve these conspiracy theories,” Todd said. “When was the last time you saw a story on Roswell? But you can’t starve Google.”
It’s true the mainstream media can no longer play gatekeeper. But what about serving as fact-checker?
That's an ongoing debate in newsrooms, where some argue it's incumbent upon the press to shoot down bogus stories. Others, on the other hand, contend the act of debunking actually gives a conspiracy theory more attention than it really deserves.
“Any time you do a story about this, it’s a debate," Tapper said. "If when you cover this, are you giving the carnival barkers -- in the president’s words -- [a] platform for nonsense?"
Tapper said he'd rather focus his story tonight on the Panetta and Petreaus appointments or Fed chief Ben Bernanke's first-ever press conference. Instead, Tapper said he'll do a piece for "World News" on the birth certificate.
On Wednesday, the White House helped set the news agenda by refuting something they didn't think should have been in the news in the first place. And in making that political calculation, some journalists who never wanted to be covering the bogus "birther" story will do so at lease once more. It's a vicious cycle, really.
“Instead of starving the beast, they decided to feed it themselves,” Todd said. “I think they came to the conclusion that starving wasn’t working.”