Birthers, right-wing nuts who believe Obama is not American, are often compared to 9/11 truthers, left-wing nuts who think Bush masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks. There's no question both groups are loony, but is there a discrepancy in the way they're treated? Both sides seem to think so, but draw widely different conclusions about what that discrepancy means.
Why all the media attention for birthers? The National Review's Greg Pollowitz suggested bias: "It's typical that the MSM is taking such an interest in this conspiracy theory while it did very little to dispel the Truther conspiracy theory that Bush knew of 9/11 beforehand." Conservative media watch group Newsbusters argued, "Anti-Bush 9-11 'Truthers' get a fair hearing from the New York Times, but anti-Obama 'Birthers' are harshly criticized." John Cole of Balloon Juice retorted:
Did Democratic Congressmen ever bring any 9/11 Truthers type bills to the floor? Were there any 9/11 Truthers with regular CNN gigs? [...] The coverage of the birther stuff does not arise because of the percentage of Republicans who believe it (I have no idea what that number is), it arises because Dobbs, a variety of Fox wingers, and some Republican Congressmen are talking about it.
Julian Sanchez explained the popularity of birtherism with the rising prominence of web-based news outlets
The Internet worsens the matter by creating mutually reinforcing alternative ecosystems: Pam Geller validates WND validates Newsbusters in a closed loop of crazy--and all of them validate the notion that actually-reputable outlets are not only tainted by liberal bias, but effectively equivalent to Pravda or Iranian state TV.
Do birthers have a better case? Powerline's John Hinderaker dismissed birthers as well as truthers, but sympathized, "Birtherism is nowhere near as crazy as trutherism. It isn't absurd to imagine that a politician who had one American and one non-American parent could learn, perhaps as an adult, that he was born abroad and therefore not a citizen after all, and try to cover up the fact."
Washington Post reporter Ben Pershing, in a Q&A, explained the greater attention for birthers this way: "Perhaps because there is an actual videotape of the planes hitting the World Trade Center that billions of people around the world have seen, while there is no videotape of Obama being born in Hawaii." Hinderaker asserts that "'Trutherism' is remarkably common among Democrats," suggesting truthers could be a quarter of Democrats or more.
Politics as usual. Birther expert Dave Weigel, evaluating a recent poll reporting that only 42% of Republicans believe Obama is American, wrote, "A 2007 Rasmussen poll about the 9/11 attacks, which found 35 percent of Democrats said Bush might have known about the attacks in advance, became a frequently used bludgeon against the party and its voters. I wouldn't be surprised to see the same thing happen here." Tom Suhadolnik of the American Thinker wrote, "The Democrats and Republicans both are retreating deeper and deeper into their own parallel universes. No one except the more Machiavellian elements of either party should take comfort in the last point. Healthy debate requires all sides to share some common truths and language to facilitate dialog. There is never going to be much common ground between parallel universes."
Society's role. David Paul Kuhn of RealClearPolitics took history and science into account, writing:
The culprits of our polarization are many. Between 1960 and 2005, one study found that ideological activist groups of all political persuasions increased sevenfold. Gerrymandering of congressional districts has maximized liberals in liberal districts and conservatives in conservative districts. This has left our congress-people more polarized.
Today, conservatives and liberals can vacation together or join dating services to court only the like minded. At night, one side watches only MSNBC and the other side only Fox News. And when people are around likeminded individuals, one study found, their viewpoints only become that much more extreme.
We are living the result. [...] A few years ago, an Emory psychologist scanned the brains of self-described partisans. Partisans were able to notice the hypocritical statements of the opposing candidate but not the inconsistencies of their preferred candidate. Ideology, it was determined, showed affects similar to drug addiction.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.