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Media Should Call Trump on Race-Based 'Birther' Campaign

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What has become clear during Donald Trump's media-blitz-of-a-non-campaign-campaign is that too many mainstream journalists are missing the story. The story and the opportunity. The story about what the "birther" issue really is all about, and the opportunity to live up to media responsibility in helping people make enlightened decisions about the answer that increasingly is becoming apparent: the "birther" issue is about race.

Just connect up the dots. Trump resurrects an issue we all thought had been put to rest. The media -- particularly television news and feature programs -- provide a national platform for the discourse. The Arizona legislature takes its immigrant profiling campaign national, passing a bill that in effect set up a presidential checkpoint -- requiring national candidates to (your papers, please) prove U.S. citizenship. And then there's that photoshopped Barack Obama nuzzled in a family of Chimps, circulated by Orange County Republican Marilyn Davenport, reportedly with her personal note: "Now you know why no birth certificate."

Davenport says, in effect, hey, can't you take a joke? But what do you have to get in order to get that joke? Republican Governor Jan Brewer vetoed the Arizona bill. But what about the message of legitimacy that is sent to the public when elected officials put their stamp of approval on such regressive policies? And, with respect to that media platform for Trump, sure, questions are being raised by journalists. But what about the thrust of those questions?
"Is Trump really running for president?" "Will his candidacy, coupled with a sharp rise in the polls, hurt Republicans?" "Is he really serious about this 'birther' issue?" "Is he merely promoting his television show Celebrity Apprentice?"

Excuse me, but, what? Practically every arrow in the quiver and still missing the target. So, here's one for the longbow: "What are the racial implications of the birther issue?"

The media set the agenda for public discourse. High on that agenda in recent weeks has been the Trump rant. Merely taking up this topic -- repeatedly -- lends a sense of legitimacy to it. As a result, the public walks away believing that questions about Obama's birth (and, by extension, his constitutional qualification to serve as president) are reasonable ones to raise. The question becomes the answer and that sense of "reasonableness" causes people to pause for a moment and to begin to associate that issue of Obama legitimacy with so much else.

Even showing a copy of Obama's certificate of live birth (as George Stephanopoulos did in an otherwise effective effort to make a point with Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann on Good Morning America), even that serves to validate the issue. Especially when the door is left open for more of this nonsense by Bachmann's response. On air, confronted by the document, the certificate of live birth. "Well, that settles it," she demurred. But, wait, there's more. A Mitch McConnell throwback-of-a-coda. "I take the president at his word."

Huh? Why take the president at his word, Congressperson, when we have the words of the official document -- words that were signed and certified long before the president even could utter a word? Obviously, because that response takes the certificate back off the table and leaves room for later attacks on the president's word. Obama's veracity once again is the issue.

If the media are going to engage matters of public concern, they have a responsibility to do more than merely provide a grandstand for fringe issues and pop star politicians. This past week, some -- including Howie Kurtz of The Washington Post -- began to ask serious questions about Trump's business record. That certainly is a good thing, a responsible journalism thing, assuming Trump is serious about a presidential run.

Whether or not he's serious about a later campaign, though, there still is the enduring impact of what is happening right now. The media have a duty to clarify that, to contextualize it.

Context is key here. Arguably what Trump (and the chorus behind him) is doing when he challenges the legitimacy of Obama's birth in Hawaii is singing familiar strains of a chart-topping tune in American politics, the politics of difference -- identifying people by race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion and on and on, then using that difference to justify the assignment of rank, privilege and power according to a white, male, hetero-normative, Christian ideal. Anything that is different from the ideal is degraded -- assigned a lower rank, marginalized.

Clearly, Obama is different from every U.S. president before him. Everyone -- even Obama's self-congratulatory liberal community of support -- sees the difference. What we make of it, though, is what makes the difference. Marilyn Davenport made a monkey of it in a flashback of nineteenth century pseudo-science and minstrelsy that once aimed at dehumanizing and devaluing African American life.

Trump puts a more contemporary spin on it. In early birth certificate comments on The View, Trump -- rejecting the legitimacy of Obama's certificate of live birth--suggested that Obama is hiding his real birth certificate because it not only would reveal he was not born in America, but that he also is (OMG!) a Muslim. (I'm sorry, but, someone please show me where the religion line is on my Illinois birth certificate, because, I mean, like...) The message in this dog-whistle pitch to the rabid right is not just that Obama is not American, but that he is unAmerican.

Last year, long before Trump emerged to give this birther issue an afterlife, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter wrote about "associational distortion," the tendency of people who don't like Obama to link him to negatives. These days, Muslims unfairly are seen in a negative light. At best, perpetual foreigners. At worst, terrorists.

Therefore, people justify their disapproval of Obama, who is associated with Islam via "birther" logic -- a pretzel-twist-of-an-idea that is vocalized and then amplified by the persistent media coverage of the issue. And that volume is jacked up so loud that people can't even hear the voices of reason. Or, they choose not to.

Poll results show a majority of Republicans now believe the myth. Perhaps, because many of them want to believe it. Social scientists call it "confirmation bias," that selective perception that causes people to pick up only that information reinforcing the conclusions they already have reached. Race is at the center of it.

Psychologist Spee Kosloff has studied political smears and has found that people are more likely to believe false statements about politicians who are perceived to be different from them. Race and political ideology are among the most significant differences, which helps to explain why people who focused on their own identity as white and Republican tended to believe in negatives associated with Obama at much higher rates than others who didn't focus on the differences.

Sharon Begley cited Kosloff's work in her August 31, 2010, Newsweek essay on the determined belief that Obama is a Muslim, and that Islam is bad.

Clearly, we need to see more of this kind of thoughtful, probative work by journalists on this issue. Otherwise, these writers -- legacy and new media alike -- are just getting played. "Trumped" in the zero sum game of racial politics. A game nobody wins.

So, let's just lay it all out there. Play the hand. Call a spade a spade. The race card already has hit the table. Trump's insistent unfounded claims regarding President Barack Obama's birth amount to a mere refinement of the not-so-long-ago race-based politics of the South. Increasingly, it seems, he is running not so much for presidency as for primacy. Top of the heap in the politics of division. "Birther" of a nation.