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.
From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is off. I'm Bob Garfield. Hey, what if we were governed by a sinister foreigner masquerading as a native born American, a real life Manchurian Candidate advancing a perverse plan to cull the population of the elderly? That’s either a plot for a bad Hollywood thriller, or this week in the wingnut o sphere.
"CRAZY EILEEN": I want to know why are you people ignoring his birth certificate?
[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE] He is not an American citizen. He is a citizen of Kenya.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s from a YouTube video of a Delaware Town Hall meeting with Congressman Mike Castle, a video that has flown all over the Internet and cable news, fomenting right wing rage over an imposter in the White House. Of course, the President has long since provided his birth certificate and contemporaneous Honolulu newspapers back in 1961 announcing his bouncing baby birth. But that’s not good enough for the birthers, as they've come to be called. Some of them are fringe loonies. Some of them are members of Congress, such as the 11 Republican cosponsors of a bill that would require future presidential candidates to present a U.S. birth certificate in order to run. And some of them are CNN’s Lou Dobbs.
LOU DOBBS: There’s a lot of questions remaining, and seemingly the questions won't go away because they haven't been dealt with.
BOB GARFIELD: So demonstrably false is this rumor that even some of the most caustic media voices on the right have tried to squelch it, among them, FOX News Channel’s Bill O'Reilly, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and columnists Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin. Still, with at least one poll showing that 58 percent of Republicans are not certain of the President’s citizenship, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was at pains to deal with the birthers this week.
ROBERT GIBBS: The President was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, the 50th state of the greatest country on the face of the earth. There are 10,000 more important issues for people in this country to discuss.
BOB GARFIELD: Chief among those 10,000 issues is health care reform. But if Gibbs somehow believed the gravity of that matter guaranteed honest debate, he was sadly mistaken. It too was mired this week in a trumped up controversy over a nonexistent provision in the White House plan. Here on Fred Thompson’s radio show is supposed health care expert, Betsy McCaughey.
BETSY McCAUGHEY: One of the most shocking things I found in this bill, and there were many, is on page 425, where the Congress would make it mandatory, absolutely require, that every five years, people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner.
BOB GARFIELD: Whoa! The Feds culling the population of those burdensome elderly? That is shocking — also, utterly untrue. The bill would simply allow seniors who do wish for professional advice on end of life issues, from will writing to hospice care, to get the government to pick up the tab. Yet, the euthanasia canard was parroted by House Republican Leader John Boehner and at least referenced by FOX News, CNN, The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. That’s interesting for a couple of reasons. One is that Betsy McCaughey is the same person caught in a series of lies back in 1994 when she helped torpedo the Clinton health care initiative by claiming, falsely, that the plan would forbid citizens from obtaining private medical care. But, of course, that was before the Internet and the proliferation of 24 hour cable news, which is why writer James Fallows, who was in the forefront of debunking McCaughey’s claims 15 years ago, predicted on this program in May that nowadays, in a world of blogs and fact checkers, McCaughey wouldn't do so well. Fallows joins us once again. Jim, welcome back.
JAMES FALLOWS: Bob, thank you. I'm sorry I'm sick this time, but I'll do my best.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, smart guy. What do you have to say for yourself?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think if you compare this with 15 years ago, you do see a difference in the ecology of the news. Part of it, I think, involves Betsy McCaughey herself, because this is now the third time she’s gone out on a limb with something that just isn't true. But if you compare this with 15 years ago, where it took a long time — in fact, beyond the lifespan of the Hillary/Bill Clinton health care proposal — to sort of come to grips with what was wrong with what she was saying, now there’s been almost an instant feedback loop. And I think the difference is while the Limbaughs and the Fred Thompsons and even a few Republicans in the House are repeating this latest claim, it doesn't have the gravitas that her original one erroneously did have. And so I think there’s something about the woman herself, but I think even more about the kind of instant feedback loop which is the good side of the Internet news cycle now.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, fair enough, but I have to observe that the President was concerned enough about this disinformation that he felt the need to address an AARP Town Hall meeting to assure seniors that there are no federal plans to force them to euthanize themselves.
JAMES FALLOWS: I think that illustrates a different phenomenon of the Internet age which is not so good. This same president also has to deal, or at least his team does, with the so called birther claims that he was born in Kenya or some place. And so just as the Internet has made it possible for such mainstream organs as exist to do faster fact checking, it also allows these kind of independent ecosystems of factual beliefs to persist. So I'm sure that just as the birthers will be there all the way along, I'm sure that there will be hearty reception for some of the latest claims that Ms. McCaughey has made, and they have to be dealt with. But somehow it’s different to have a question the president has to deal with than sort of mainstream conventional wisdom believing it.
BOB GARFIELD: So there’s another issue here, a media issue of being in the Rolodex. Once you’re in the Rolodex of TV producers, especially of cable news, it’s kind of hard to get dislodged from it. CNN, which as recently as February was debunking McCaughey’s claims, recently had her on the air to talk about health care reform and identified her as a, quote, "long time expert in public health."
JAMES FALLOWS: [LAUGHS] This is the sort of thing — and I say this jokingly — which makes me yearn for my days back in the Chinese controlled state media [LAUGHS] when I was living there. There is a built—in problem with nonstop talk news. Number one, you need to fill every show, and guests are cheap. Number two, you need to quote, unquote, "balance" every show. So if you have some guy from the National Institutes of Health or the AMA, you need somebody on the other side, and there seems to be almost no extremity of being proven wrong which disqualifies you from that role.
BOB GARFIELD: Every time I turn on cable news I expect to see the boy who cried wolf
JAMES FALLOWS: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: to weigh in on, you know, the sheep situation.
JAMES FALLOWS: That’s a great example, because you could have an expert from the National Institute of Wolf Studies saying [BOB LAUGHS], well, as far as we can tell, there aren't any wolves. And then you get the boy who cried wolf, and it makes for an interesting cable discussion. So, yeah, I think that one has to look for the good as well as the depressing in the evolving nature of the news, and I do maintain there is an element of good in the ability for faster detection of simple falsehood. That was hard to do in the '90s. It’s easier to do now, but there’s all this other stuff we have to worry about, too.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Jim, as always, thanks for joining us, and take care of your throat.
JAMES FALLOWS: Thanks very much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: James Fallows writes for The Atlantic and is author of Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China.