The Origins of Rumors

Friday, July 31, 2009


It was a big week for conspiracy theories, with two big rumors circulating in the news. First, that the President is secretly not American. Second, that Obama's health care proposal includes plans to euthanize senior citizens, a claim promoted by former New York Lieutenant Governor Betsy McCaughey. The Atlantic's James Fallows explains how these claims fare in today's 24-hour news cycle.

Comments [39]

MrJM from WBEZ

FYI: James Fallows has revisited his thesis in a blog post entitled "I was Wrong"

-- MrJM

Aug. 13 2009 09:32 PM
Mark Richard from Columbus, Ohio

Dave, for the record, I wasn't criticizing you, just building on some comments you made about the coverage of this issue. My comments were in response to the coverage, not a response to your posts.

Aug. 10 2009 04:10 PM
David from Rhode Island

I agree with what Mark Richard is saying, so it pains me to say I don't think he read my posts very carefully. First of all, in a case such as this, since I don't know and didn't claim to know any of the "birthers" personally, I was of course denouncing their claims, and by implication denouncing them to the extent that anyone could believe that crap. How any of that relates to "proportion" escapes me, maybe I am just not clear on what you mean by that.

In any case, the only thing I said about the 9/11 conspiracy nuts as compared to the birther nuts is that you cannot really disprove what the 9/11 group believes. At least with the birthers you can pretty much disprove them with the physical evidence of a birth certificate, contemporaneous newspaper accounts, etc. Of course like any good proponent of a juicy conspiracy, they can explain all that away as part of the conspiracy. There is nothing anyone can do about stuf like that, they also believe in teleportation and my ability to exist in multiple dimensions. Unfortunately there is no similar evidence you can provide to the 9/11 crowd.

Finally, if you read my post #8 opening sentence, you will see I agree with you about the opportunity for the media to explore liberal conspiracy groups, although you said it much more explicitly. I cannot understand why you critisize someone that agrees with you, especially when you mischaracterize my position.

Aug. 06 2009 01:52 PM
Mark Richard from Columbus, Ohio

Re Dave's attempt to point out the double standard used by national political editors, I've heard far more in the way of denunciation of 'birthers' than propaganda by 'birthers' themselves, which seems to suggest a lack of proportion on the part of the former.

When Rosie O'Donnell, not a marginal cultural figure, suggested on 'The View' that 9/11 was an inside job, it would have been a good opportunity for a non-partisan media to investigate how widespread such attitudes were among Democrats. Editors would have found that 9/11 'truthers' had a bigger following among self-identitifed Democrats than 'birthers' have among analogous Republicans. But most editors' minds don't run that way - how about a story suggesting Democrats have their wingnuts, too? - since most journalists are the usual urban Democrats who have left-wing nuts living all around them. It's a function of the urban bias of most political journalism; corruption in New Jersey is to be expected (dog bites man), while corruption in Alaska, well, now, there's a story. Republican missteps and wing-nut statements are treated as a 'metaphor' for a pre-existing narrative of American politics that is reliably hostile to the GOP, while Democratic errors and wing-nut statments belong to the perpetrators alone, and are isolated from the Party as a whole in their editorial framing. Figures on the Left are indulged more. It took decades for Democrats and the mainstream media to realize that Ralph Nader was a cut-rate Savanarola; only when he turned on the Party did he lose his influence with the Washington press. Heard much about any of Ralph's crusades lately? Anyone? Anyone?

I think this leads to poor journalism, leaving the mainstream press at sea when it comes to interpreting Democratic defeats or declines in polling support.

Aug. 06 2009 01:40 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

That last is why I helped found the New Haven Green Party back in '85, but we've seen how even Green associates can use their campaigns as career swan songs rather than serious challenge combined with cooperative behavior. (Though I must admit that I am a well-acknowledged adherent or originator of several liberal conspiracy theories.)

It always amazed our local officials that while I criticized them roundly in local press, I was also the volunteer most responsible for putting them on public access television for close to ten years, the best tool for self-promotion they'd ever been offered! It made it hard to hate me. So did editing a statewide monthly for elders.

I'd hate to be covering constituent meetings today.

Aug. 06 2009 02:01 AM
David from Rhode Island

CAY - give me a break. We all know now that Kennedy lied a lot and had numerous affairs, Johnson stole elections in Texas routinely, Carter might have been honest but was a total disaster, and Clinton obviously had his problems with the truth, and not just about sex. They all lie to one degree or another, most of them a lot. As long as we keep trying to make one party sound worse than the other on moral character, we won't get anywhere. Agree or disagree with their basic ideas, fine. But don't kid yourself that the vast majority of them, from either party, are there for anything except themselves. Oh, I don't think they even think that themselves; they rationalize everything. But the trips, the spending, the benefits they give themselves...They are professional politicians and that is a very dangerous thing.

Aug. 04 2009 10:35 PM
CAY from Azle, TX

Thank you Charles....great come back. All this reminds me of the Nixon years...we use to call it 'Tricky Dick '. OMG, he was a Republican too.

Aug. 04 2009 07:19 PM
Charles Cates from Austin, Texas

The entire 'birther' movement is evidence of a critical need for increased mental health care in this country.

Aug. 04 2009 03:56 PM
John from Washington, DC

The Democrats' "public option" may not specifically include euthanasia benefits. The so-called "wing nuts" may be jumping to conclusions.

Of course, when Channel 2 in Portland, OR runs a story about how Oregon's "public option" is refusing to pay for chemotherapy, but is instead offering a euthanasia benefit to one cancer sufferer, maybe those so-called "wing nuts" aren't so far off-base.

Aug. 03 2009 10:22 AM
George Bendemann from new jersey

Wing nuts will be wing nuts, left or right you know.

You should not cast Joe Scarborough in with the "most caustic media voices on the right -...Joe Scarborough....Anne Coulter..."). Scarborough is no Coulter and you know it. Joe pointed out the falsity of this issue as you barely note. He does not deserve your immature, gratuitous swipe while making your point. Are you subtly trying to create a new reality? Joe often disagrees with you and he is usually right.
Once again Garf's opininons pass as facts.....where are the editors on this show??

Aug. 02 2009 08:02 PM
D. Douglas

Re the "euthanasia" rumor: you - and as far as I've been able to tell, everybody on cable & most of the blog world - missed the obvious: the source.

During the marathon Senate H.E.L.P. Committee debate on the health reform bill, it was a Republican, Tom Coburn, who proposed that before a person could be enrolled in Medicare that person would have to sign an advance health care directive re end of life care. The Republicans must have talked, as they usually did with their amendments, for at least 30 minutes in favor of this amendment. It was voted down, I believe, on party lines. Republicans for. Democrats against. (Most everybody agreed it was a good idea to have an advance directive, but the Dems. felt it would impede signing up for Medicare because of the legalities involved in creating such a directive. The Republicans pooh-poohed that, saying it was simple to do. (As one who has created an advance directive, I can assure you that it isn't. ))

But real reporting - i.e., going to the source - does not seem to matter any more.

Here's a link to the video. Use the search function for coburn and "advance directive".

Aug. 02 2009 05:27 PM
David from Rhode Island

Terry - It just occured to me that maybe you don't read so well (wonder who that makes the m...n). I said that there wasn't an equivalence, if you are talking about the claims of illigitimacy between the 2000 election and the 2008 election. It was Mike that was claiming an equivalence, and I was refuting it. Read my post again VERY CAREFULLY.

Aug. 02 2009 03:57 PM
David from Rhode Island

thanks Terry. I have no idea what your being well paid has to do with anything, but nice to know. Want to add some substance to why you hate my posts?

Aug. 02 2009 03:53 PM
terry mckenna from dover nj

I am a moderate Republican, fiscally conservative and work in business (and am well paid) but ... to Dave: posts like yours make me want to scream at my PC that you are a m...n. I know that's not the sort of thing we should write here. But if you really see an equivalence, you are just not credible.

Aug. 02 2009 03:18 PM
David from Rhode Island

Mike - I am a conservative, but really. Are you seriously comparing the outrageous claims of the birthers to the 2000 election? I don't think the conspiracy theorists were right about that, but at least that truly was highly contentious and subject to legitimate debate. Claiming this election could possibly be illigitimate based on the rantings presented so far is ludicrous. Besides, as I have clearly demonstrated above, even if Obama were born in Kenya is still qualifies as a natural born citizen. What part of that didn't you understand?

Aug. 02 2009 03:11 PM
Mike from Vermont

Yes, CHANGE has come to our nation and to the snarky folks at OTM.

It once was okay to refer to an alleged illegitimate election of a president, now it is not.

It was once okay to wink at all sorts of conspiracy theories about the president's motives and actions, now it is not.

It is great that we now have a president who is so clearly beyond reproach - and a cadre of protectors to make sure he stays that way - because he has serious work to do, unlike any of his predecessors.

Aug. 02 2009 01:48 PM
Matt W. from Arlington, Virginia

Your assertion that I live in a "fascist gated enclave" really got me thinking. I have strongly advocated for free markets on this forum. A position that is the polar opposite of fascism. About making things up, I might have once said that I stole around 20 bases one season when I only stole 19 bases. Mea Culpa, but still pretty impressive.

In that same vein, fascism is marked by the personalization of political life. I would like to point out that your previous posts on this segment have included significant personal attacks on the basis of personal political beliefs ... very interesting.

I thought that post number 12 was substantially more about the Obama Campaign's transperency and the journalistic standards of those covering the campaign. Regardless, you stay classy Petey.

Aug. 02 2009 01:14 PM

Sorry. I should indeed have said "barely lost one popular vote and barely won the other."

Again, I shouldn't be doing this so hurriedly at work.

Aug. 02 2009 10:18 AM
Robert from NYC

CNN isn't a new agency. CNN is in the business of business and getting ratings. They tease on both sides, mostly the right, and stir up "fighting" and rabble rousing to attract viewers and get ratings and therefore more money. It's almost PURE entertainment. Were I Christiane Amanpour I'd be embarrassed as a journalist to be part of CNN. Of course, I'm sure the pay is good.

Aug. 02 2009 10:17 AM

Sorry. I should indeed have said "barely lost one popular vote and barely one the other."

Aug. 02 2009 10:16 AM
Robert from NYC

Betsy McCaughey should be institutionalized and tested as a pathological liar. Either that or she's just evil as well as stupid. But in the end it's the American people who have to get on the ball, stop listening and believing what they hear by these nuts and read up on what the facts are before they decide if they are for or against what is being looked at for healthcare. I bet more people would be FOR change, serious change.

Aug. 02 2009 10:13 AM
David from Rhode Island

do some simple Googling first:

2004 election

Bush 62,028,285

Kerry 59,028,109

Aug. 02 2009 10:03 AM

Heh, I'm hurriedly tried to do this at work... I meant quotation marks, not parentheses.

Aug. 02 2009 09:35 AM

I meant fair and square, above, to appear in parentheses.

Aug. 02 2009 09:20 AM

If that's the case in some little leagues, then my mistake

That doesn't in the least justify something that is genuinely "hateful in tone," such as right-wing nonsense that Obama is the "other" who has no place amongst real god-loving americans (perhaps not Matt's exact words, but certainly the words and sentiments of some conservatives).

Such tripe deserves to be attacked with the same vehemence it is delivered, and in no way deserves to be dignified.

Years of relative silence from liberals who either didn't want to acknowledge and dignify this sort of garbage with a response, or who just wanted to "be civilized," as you say, helped right-wingers ruin this country fair and square. As an example, take Kerry's swift-boating, which resulted in four more years of Bush... not that I care much for Kerry.

The "Republican Revolution" and eight years of Bush proved to me that liberal's past civility, including my own and which conservatives found useful to mock, was as good as condoning this sort of nonsense in terms of its effect on just enough gullible americans... remember the percentages by which Bush just barely lost both popular votes? It was just enough to put him in the Whitehouse without too much argument... something that can only be prevented again by fiercely attacking just these sorts of lies and stupidity.

So please, don't ask me to treat idiocy with kid gloves... America has had enough of that.

Aug. 02 2009 09:18 AM
David from Rhode Island

Petey - come on, be civilized. Besides, did you just sleep through all those stories of the kids that were 15 playing as 12 year olds? There have been numerous incidents, leading to many Little League organizations requiring birth certificates. You really need to do a little fact checking before you tear into someone like that. You lose any credibility for your positions, not to mention the completely bigoted, sweeping generalizations you make that are extremely hatgeful in tone. But then that's impossible, right? You are from the party that loves everyone.

Aug. 02 2009 07:44 AM

Matt W.,
You either live in one of those fascist gated enclaves, in which case I believe you, or you're taking the typical conservative tack of pulling a "fact" out of your butt because it's the only way you can "validate" your point.

I played little league ball for years and was never once required to provide credentials. Why the hell would any little league require a kid to prove who he is before he can play ball?

This pea-brained attack on Obama's credentials is the final pitiful whimper of a dying party which has never been able to win an argument or election without resorting to praying on the weak-minded and uneducated with campaigns of mis-information, out-right lies, and base fear-mongering.

I miss much about the America of my youth, but if conservative tripe and bigotry is the only way you people have of rekindling our past glory, we're better off never looking back.

Aug. 02 2009 02:20 AM
Matt W. from Arlington, Virginia

I am sure he has an original birth certificate.

The redacted copy of the certificate released by the campaign in June didn't cut the mustard, the Fact Check Dot Org story didn't meet the threshold to play in Little League until November 1, 2008. That is cutting it pretty close to election day and fails every transparency standard promised by the campaign.

Your comment about "Some one should have checked" got me thinking. When it comes to qualifications for high office constitutional or otherwise it is pretty embarrassing for those in the media to rely on the "well somebody has to have already checked" mantra. That is much more a critique of contemporary journalistic practice than it is any agreement with the "Birthers".

Aug. 02 2009 01:48 AM

I have to say, I am very curious to see what OTM does with the NBC/Fox-in-cahoots story re O'Reilly & Olbermann.

Aug. 01 2009 08:36 PM
David from Rhode Island

Matt W. I often agree with your points of view, but they arranged for the State of Hawaii to release his birth certificate. Exactly what else would you have them do, or do they need to do? I was born in Missouri, and I know if I had to produce proof of my citizenship back to the basics of my birth certificate (since all other documentation such as Soc. Sec. card, visa and driver's license are based on this fundamental document if you are a native born American) it would take me a day or two. This guy is President of the United States, I doubt these things are quite as accessable as they are for many people. He is living in a "rented" house after all. The whole thing is so inane and wrong-headed, I don't think there is anything to be gained by trying to make it sound like there is even a whiff of legitimacy to it.

However, your comment about signing up for Little League got me thinking. It turns out that when a person applies to be on the ballot in each state, that Secretary of State is supposed to validate that the person meets the constitutional requirements. Perhaps the Federal Election Commision gets involved too, I am not sure. But he would have had to prove that he was eligible somewhere along the way, I would think.

Aug. 01 2009 02:38 PM
Matt W. from Arlington, Virginia

I needed more documentation to sign up for little league than the Obama Campaign released in response to inquiries about then Senator Obama's Constitutional Qualification. Asking for the same documentation that parents have to dig up every summer before the summer little league season, doesn't deserve such derogatory comments.

Aug. 01 2009 01:51 PM
David from Rhode Island

There are as many left wing kooks with conspiracy theories as right wingers. The point is some people think the media only report the right wing conpiracies to make all conservatives look like kooks, and ignore the left wing ones, like about McCain and, to a large degree, 9/11. Let's not even get into how many think the govt. is responsible for every ill that befalls anything less than the rich. Now I don't think this is as pervasive as some people do, but there is some truth to it. The left wing nuts that questioned McCain were even further off base than the right wing nuts are about Obama. Well, OK, not really because wrong is wrong, as one can read above. What I mean is that McCain's parents were both American and his father was military, so of course he was an American. Can you imagine saying your kid is not an American just because 2 American citizens happened to be traveling when it was born, and even more egregiously if the people were in another country because the US government assigned them to it? At least with Obama's case, if he had been born in Kenya (their premise), which he was not, but if he had, you have to dig into the details of the US Code to see he is still a natural born citizen. With McCain it was just incredibly stupid to claim otherwise. OK, they are both really stupid.

But let's not make this into "the right is worse than the left" thing. They both have their fair share of conspiracy nuts, and they get somewhat equally reported, which thankfully is not really much. After all, as they even said on OTM, quite a few of the most strident ultra-conservatives are decrying the idiocy of the birthers.

Aug. 01 2009 11:41 AM
Dominick Arbolay from Hell's Kitchen

Betsy McCaughey, former lieutenant governor of New York, was the joke of Albany. Most of her fellow Republicans in the legislature considered her a kook. She knows as much about health as a turtle knows about speed racing. Conspiracy theories have always existed:
did FDR know ahead of time about the Japanese bombing of Hawaii, the real killer of JFK, so on. Those conspiracies,
along with the 9/11 conspiracies, have been relegated to fringe groups. The mainstream media tends to stay away from liberal conspiracies, or lose their credibility. Not so with the right wing conspirators. Radio and cable television are not bound by facts the way newspapers are.
What you have are "pundits", "personalities" forming the news. That's why they attack Obama for not being a citizen, while they never complain that McCain was born in the Panama Canal zone. He was not born on American soil. Yet the right wing never questions his citizenship. Personally, I believe McCain met the citizen qualification to run for president: his parents were American. Some liberals tried to make his citizenship an issue during the election, but the media took a pass.

Aug. 01 2009 08:54 AM
David from Rhode Island

So #7 is the applicable provision here, if Obama had in fact been born in Kenya. No one disputes his mother was a US citizen that lived in the USA for at least 5 years of her life prior to his birth. Yes, there are other provisions within the law that count former territories like Hawaii. That was dealt with for Goldwater, who was born in Arizona when it was a territory, I think. She lived in the continental USA for years anyway.

So all this nonsense is for nothing. The constitution says that you only have to be a natural born citizen (along with other requirements he clearly meets) and Obama meets the definition of natural born citizen EVEN IF he was born in Kenya, which he wasn't. And of course he resided here 14 years, per Article II. End of discussion.

Aug. 01 2009 07:06 AM
David from Rhode Island

Definition of Natural Born Citizen according to Title 8 of the US Code, Section 1401:

1. Anyone born inside the United States (there is an exception for children of foreign diplomats)
2. Any Indian or Eskimo born in the United States, provided being a citizen of the U.S. does not impair the person's status as a citizen of the tribe
3. Any one born outside the United States, both of whose parents are citizens of the U.S., as long as one parent has lived in the U.S.
4. Any one born outside the United States, if one parent is a citizen and lived in the U.S. for at least one year and the other parent is a U.S. national
5. Any one born in a U.S. possession, if one parent is a citizen and lived in the U.S. for at least one year
6. Any one found in the U.S. under the age of five, whose parentage cannot be determined, as long as proof of non-citizenship is not provided by age 21
7. Any one born outside the United States, if one parent is an alien and as long as the other parent is a citizen of the U.S. who lived in the U.S. for at least five years (with military and diplomatic service included in this time)
8. A final, historical condition: a person born before 5/24/1934 of an alien father and a U.S. citizen mother who has lived in the U.S.

Aug. 01 2009 07:06 AM
David from Rhode Island

Of course Obama was born in Hawaii. I think that is beyond dispute. If Dobbs is really giving it any play (and I learned a long time ago not to take a clip on OTM as proof that he is), then shame on him. It would be so easy to check it out.

But the other, possibly more distressing fact in all this is that the media seems to have utterly failed to point out that IT DOESN"T EvEN MATTER. Let's stipulate that the main purpose of the birthers is to say that because he was born (they say) in Kenya, he is inelilible to be President. They have sued to that effect (and been tossed out of court) so I think that is a safe assumption. It is also clearly wrong, even if they were right about Kenya. From Article II of the constitution:

"No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States."

Now the document never defines "natural born citizen", so it was defined by statute later. The definition since before Obama was born has multiple prongs, but it absolutely DOES NOT mean only that a person has to be born on US soil. That is native born, not natural born. The applicable parts of the US Code in the next post.

Aug. 01 2009 06:51 AM
David from Rhode Island

Well Petey, you may not recall it, but that is exactly what happened, including a bizarre microanalysis of Bush's reaction to the news while he was reading to the kids that "proved" he knew about it already. It was incredible stuff, and it went on for months, not weeks. But on the other hand, I also don't think it was qualitatively covered much differently than this "birther" issue. It got some attention for debunking, and then the conspiracy nuts just sputtered into nothingness. I think the big difference is this birth issue is far more concise and provable/disprovable (and irrelevant, see my next post), while the 9/11 is like the grassy knoll. It is almost impossible to deal with people that believe that stuff.

Aug. 01 2009 06:42 AM

Gee Mikey,
I don't recall "congress, the media, academia and ... both the glitterati and literati" blathering non-stop for weeks about Cheney/Bush causing 9/11.

On the other hand, for the last couple of weeks one can't access news without being confronted with moronic conservative tripe about "the GREAT MYSTERY" of Obama's grand usurpation scheme.

Why don't you people go back to claiming you were probed by aliens and let the rest of us get some real news coverage?

Jul. 31 2009 10:59 PM
Mike H from Naperville Il

Left wing (mainly) kooks in congress, the media, academia and amongst both the glitterati and literati had accused the former occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania of murdering 3000 fellow citizens on 9-11 and nary a critical peep in the press about that. In fact, most of the big named pieces I read from the WAPO, NY Times and LA Times were relatively sympathetic to the people in questions.

But all of a sudden a small handful of (mainly) conservatives begin accusing the sitting president of not being a US citizen and the press goes bonkers.

Why the sudden change of heart? Why the rush to denunciate on one hand and the complete silence on the other?

Jul. 31 2009 09:31 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.