Presswatch

The Birth of a Notion

By From the July/August 2011 issue

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“Let me introduce you to Jerome Corsi,” read the promotional e-mail. “This week he released a new book that the publisher says will be a bestseller ‘of historic proportions.’”

Corsi’s book, Where’s the Birth Certificate? The Case That Barack Obama Is Not Eligible to Be President, was ill-timed, to say the least. Its official publication date was May 17, the day before that e-mail went out. On April 27, the White House had released a copy of President Obama’s original long-form Hawaiian birth certificate.

It revealed that the future president was born Barack Hussein Muhammad Jihad Guevara Manson Obama on July 4, 1976, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Not only is he not a natural-born citizen, he’s not even old enough to be president. And his mother, Ethel Rosenberg, listed her religion as “Stalinist.”

Ha, gotcha! Actually, there really was nothing to see. The information on the long-form certificate matched that on the previously released short-form one—which, contrary to myth, is a legal birth certificate and is the only kind of certificate the state of Hawaii has dispensed since it digitized its records a decade ago. To obtain the old certificate, the president had to petition the Hawaii Department of Health for a waiver of that policy.

Presumably Obama could have made this request at any time, so what took him so long? The president blamed the media:

Now, normally I would not comment on something like this, because obviously there’s a lot of stuff swirling in the press on…any given day and I’ve got other things to do. But two weeks ago, when the Republican House had put forward a budget that will have huge consequences potentially to the country, and when I gave a speech about my budget and how I felt that we needed to invest in education and infrastructure and making sure that we had a strong safety net for our seniors even as we were closing the deficit, during that entire week the dominant news story wasn’t about these huge, monumental choices that we’re going to have to make as a nation. It was about my birth certificate. And that was true on most of the news outlets that were represented here.

That was a gross overstatement, according to Julie Moos of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism organization:

Numbers provided by Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism—which tracks news coverage in its weekly index—contradict Obama’s claim.

For the week of April 11–17, the economy accounted for 39 percent of news coverage.

That same week, Donald Trump’s revival of citizenship questions accounted for “much of the attention directly on the Obama administration, at 4% of the newshole,” PEJ reports.

Back in July 2009, in my online Wall Street Journal column, I raised the question: “So why doesn’t Obama release the original certificate?” I answered as follows:

The real question is: Why should he? The demand has no basis in principle and would have no practical benefit.

Obama has already provided a legal birth certificate demonstrating that he was born in Hawaii.…The release of the obsolete birth certificate would not “resolve the issue” to those for whom it is not already resolved. They claim without basis that today’s birth certificate is a fake; there is nothing to stop them from claiming without basis that yesterday’s is as well.

The president would gain nothing politically for his trouble. By acknowledging the birthers’ demands, he would lend them a modicum of credibility. By ignoring them, he actually reaps political benefits from their efforts. His critics, even those who are not birthers, end up looking like cranks by association. His supporters use the birthers to paint Obama foes as racist—which is probably unfair even to the birthers…but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective.

What changed? First, the president was much more on the defensive politically in April 2011 than he had been two years earlier—for many reasons, ranging from $5-a-gallon gasoline to Obamacare to an unpopular military intervention in Libya. (Finishing off Osama bin Laden gave the president a boost, but Osama’s death certificate was released a few days after Obama’s birth certificate.) The more dissatisfied voters are with Obama, the more receptive they are to questions about his legitimacy, even silly and baseless ones.

Second, the president’s claim about the media, while overwrought, was not entirely false. Even before Trump latched on to it, birtherism got entirely too much attention from journalists. The attention it got was hostile—commentators portraying birthers as nuts, and reporters demanding that Republican politicians alienate the nuts by renouncing birtherism—but the effect was to keep the question alive.

THE ORIGINAL birth certificate was Obama’s trump card, to be played when this dynamic ceased working to his advantage. Sure enough, polls showed that the percentage of Americans, including Republicans, who disbelieved or doubted the president was born in the U.S. declined dramatically. Yet as I predicted, the hard-core birthers, including Corsi and his publisher, WND Books, stuck to their guns and refused to accept that the certificate was genuine.

Hence that May 18 promotional e-mail. The twist is that it came not from WND but from the Obama campaign, which decided to use Where’s the Birth Certificate? as part of a fund-raising scheme. Donate $15 or more to the 2012 campaign, and you’ll get a “Made in the USA” coffee mug with an image of the long-form birth certificate. In keeping with campaign finance laws, purchasers of the mug are required to affirm that they are American citizens.

Also on May 18, Esquire magazine reports: “In a stunning development…World Net Daily Editor and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Farah has announced plans to recall and pulp the entire 200,000 first printing run of the book.”

Make that “‘reported.’” Less than two hours after writer Mark Warren posted the story on the Esquire website, he added a disclaimer:

For those who didn’t figure it out yet, and the many on Twitter for whom it took a while: We committed satire this morning to point out the problems with selling and marketing a book that has had its core premise and reason to exist gutted by the news cycle, several weeks in advance of publication. Are its author and publisher chastened? Well, no. They double down, and accuse the President of the United States of perpetrating a fraud on the world by having released a forged birth certificate. Not because this claim is in any way based on reality, but to hold their terribly gullible audience captive to their lies, and to sell books. This is despicable, and deserves only ridicule. That’s why we committed satire in the matter of the Corsi book. Hell, even the president has a sense of humor about it all.

As you can tell from this shrill disclaimer, Warren does not have a sense of humor about it, which is why in attempting a satire, he ended up perpetrating a hoax. This columnist was among those who were taken in by it. After reading Warren’s piece, I immediately went to Amazon and ordered a copy of Where’s the Birth Certificate?, figuring it would now be a collector’s item.

Fortunately, I read the disclaimer in time to cancel my order. That was a close one. 

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.