Lou Dobbs had David from Freeport, N.Y., on the line, the caller musing darkly about President Obama “rushing all these programs through by whatever means,” knowing he will soon be exposed as a fake, a fraud, a . . . Kenyan.
At that point, a scrupulous radio host had three options: (A) hit the kill button (B) laugh and hit the kill button or (C) offer some push-back against the fantastical notion that Barack Obama was born on foreign soil and thus serves -- illegally -- as the Oval Office’s first resident alien.
Instead, Dobbs chose the maximum complicity-minimum integrity route, or (D): “Certainly your view can’t be discounted,” the host said.
So it went over the last week, with the bloviating interviewer offering the (nominal) credibility of his syndicated radio show, which airs on dozens of stations, and the CNN television brand as a platform for assorted wing nuts, whose conspiracy fulminations about Obama had previously been most virulent in the more disreputable reaches of the Internet.
The subject fits neatly with Dobbs’ nativist, immigrant obsession. And the cable demagogue, already well behind Fox News, has got to find some way to keep from sagging behind even traditional cable television laggard MSNBC.
Cooler heads at CNN put some distance between themselves and their once star host, with fill-in Kitty Pilgrim using a segment of “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on Friday to provide a substantially more skeptical look at the Obama-made-in-Africa claims.
Pilgrim introduced the topic of Obama’s alleged foreign birth as she sat in for Dobbs that night, calling it “the discredited rumor that won’t go away.”
“CNN has fully investigated the issue,” the substitute said, and “found no basis for the questions about the president’s birthplace.”
When the issue first surfaced in the presidential campaign last summer, numerous credible news organizations and even the Hawaii Department of Health presented clear evidence that Obama was born Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu.
But those reports have done little to snuff out elaborate and ever-mutating conspiracy theories.
I often hear from disgruntled readers that they don’t pay attention to the dread “Mainstream Media” because they can find “the truth” on the Internet. Translation: Some blogger will please them by propping up just about any cockeyed theory that they hold.
The Internet agitators, in turn, get support and sustenance from mainstream provocateurs like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who last month chortled, “God does not have a birth certificate, and neither does Obama -- not that we’ve seen.”
Dobbs and the others found a nominal “news” peg for the story last week when the U.S. Army allowed a reserve major, Stefan F. Cook, to reverse his voluntary deployment to Afghanistan. Cook proclaimed his orders invalid because, he insisted, his commander in chief wasn’t born in the U.S.
Never mind that the good major appears in this instance to be more agent provocateur than man of arms or that he is represented by Orly Taitz, an Orange County attorney (and dentist) who has made it her life’s work to prove Obama isn’t one of us.
Dobbs welcomed Taitz and another of her clients, Alan Keyes (who was crushed by Obama in their Illinois U.S. Senate race), to his radio program like seers instead of extreme partisans. Dobbs suggested he had reached no conclusions, before barreling ahead with questions about why Obama hasn’t produced “his birth certificate, the long form, the real deal.”
But Obama has presented his birth certificate, as first noted by the nonpartisan FactCheck.org in June of last year.
Rather than settling the matter, though, the Internet display of the “Certification of Live Birth” provoked the first in what has become an endless cycle of challenges and innuendo.
Just last month, the Hawaii Department of Health confirmed to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that the document is the only official record of the president’s birth and proves he was born in that state.
But conspiracy theorists argue that the lack of an underlying paper document (the so-called long-form birth certificate) proves a cover-up.
That ignores multiple truths including this one: Hawaii’s records, like those in many states, have gone electronic, and the certification document is accepted by both the state and national government as full proof of citizenship. To insist otherwise is to embrace the notion that thousands upon thousands of Hawaiians have obtained their U.S. passports, using similar documents, fraudulently.
One Internet “proof” of Obama’s alien roots truncates a taped interview with his grandmother to make it sound as if she is confirming his birth in Kenya, when the full tape shows she does nothing of the sort.
Another canard asserts that Obama must have been traveling on an Indonesian passport when he went to Pakistan at age 20, because the U.S. had banned travel there. Problem: There was no such travel ban.
To believe the wild theories, one must also accept that Obama’s mother -- rather than apply for citizenship for her son as one would expect if he had been born overseas -- launched an elaborate hoax. It would have begun in 1961 with her placing false birth notices in Honolulu’s two daily newspapers. Diabolical.
Brooks Jackson, director of Annenberg Political Fact Check (FactCheck.Org) and a reporter with 34 years in the business, has seen one howler after another knocked down, only for another to sprout in its place.
“CNN should be ashamed of itself for putting some of that stuff on the air,” said Jackson, who worked at the cable outlet for more than 20 years.
Besides Pilgrim’s skin-back report last week, one CNN employee reminded me several times that Dobbs’ most pointed assertions were made on his radio program, which is unconnected to CNN.
Jackson has studied the kind of “disordered thinking” exhibited by the foreign-birth gadflies, known collectively as “birthers.” His book “unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation” -- co-authored with another journalism authority, Kathleen Hall Jamieson -- explored instances in which the public let itself be overtaken by emotion.
Jackson said he saw a bit of this emotional attachment to a conspiracy theory from Democrats who insisted that Sen. John F. Kerry lost the 2004 election only because of voter fraud in Ohio. They kept finding new examples.
Certainly, a good chunk of the American public hasn’t armed itself with enough plain information to sniff out the flimflam. Well after this year’s presidential inauguration, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 11% of Americans believed Obama was a Muslim. And 35% weren’t sure of his religion.
Republican Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware saw a town hall meeting this month interrupted as a woman, rooted on by a boisterous crowd, angrily demanded to know why nothing was being done to oust the “citizen of Kenya” pretending to be president.
On the even more extreme fringes, such sentiments border on dangerous. James von Brunn, the elderly neo-Nazi who shot and killed a guard last month at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., had posted anti-Obama “birther” theories on the Internet.
Dobbs did not return my call Tuesday. But he did go on the radio and rant about the L.A. Times and the other liberal media that are “subservient and servile to this presidency.”
He insisted he believed Obama is a citizen, while continuing to tell listeners “there is no actual birth certificate.” He did it because he is a Man of the People. And, as he explained, “the American people want an answer.”