A Primer For Media Choosing To Cover Birther Claims

Blog ››› ››› ERIC SCHROECK

In a report released today, Media Matters analyzed Fox News' recent coverage and discussions of President Obama's birth certificate and found that in 44 out of 52 total segments in which a false claim was made about Obama's birth certificate, Fox News hosts did not challenge or correct those falsehoods.

It's no wonder why, according to a recent USA Today poll, only 38 percent of Americans say Obama was definitely born in the United States.

Today, the White House released a copy of the president's original, long-form birth certificate -- the one demanded by birthers who were unsatisfied with Obama's certificate of live birth -- stating that "[t]he President believed the distraction over his birth certificate wasn't good for the country."

But with people like Donald Trump and Rev. Franklin Graham getting attention by pushing birther conspiracy theory claims, it's still the responsibility of media outlets choosing to report on them to be prepared to debunk any false claims about Obama's origins. Rather than focusing on the sensationalism of the birther claims, the media must focus on the facts and immediately correct the claims.

So, here's a primer for media outlets on reporting the facts behind common birther falsehoods.

FACT: Obama has released his birth certificate.

It's important to start with the basic truth: President Obama was indeed born in the United States. If someone claims that Obama has not released his birth certificate and that Obama could somehow end this whole birther discussion by releasing it, they're simply wrong. Obama has released his birth certificate, and Hawaii Department of Health officials have said the original document is on file in the state's archives.

Here's how Fox News' Shep Smith definitively debunked Rev. Franklin Graham's recent false claims that Obama has not produced a birth certificate and that Obama "could solve this whole birth certificate issue pretty quickly" by doing so:

SMITH: Well, he has produced a birth certificate. It shows his mother gave birth to him in Hawaii. It is stamped and sealed by the state of Hawaii. It is confirmed, and Fox News can confirm the president of the United States is a citizen of the United States, period.

You can watch Smith's debunking here.

Moreover, FactCheck.org researched Obama's birth certificate in 2008 and wrote: "We can assure readers that the certificate does bear a raised seal, and that it's stamped on the back by Hawaii state registrar Alvin T. Onaka (who uses a signature stamp rather than signing individual birth certificates)." Check out FactCheck's definitive research here.

FACT: The type of birth certificate Obama originally provided is what all Hawaii-born residents receive when they ask for a copy of their birth certificate.

The claim that the birth certificate Obama originally provided somehow isn't definitive proof of his birth in Hawaii is false. What Obama provided - a computer-generated copy of his certificate of live birth - is what all Hawaiians receive when they request a copy of their birth certificate. Here's how CNN's Gary Tuchman definitively reported on this:

TUCHMANN: There's quite a bit of irony over this original birth certificate debate, and that is the original documents are no longer even certified by the state. The Health Department says President Obama or any other Hawaiian can still go through the process of getting one. But either way, they're no longer supposed to be used for official purposes. Only the computer-generated ones will do.

Tuchman further reported that the certificate of live birth is the "very same form every Hawaiian now gets when they request a birth certificate." Tuchman also quoted the statement on the certificate that reads: "This copy serves a prima fascia evidence of the fact of birth in any court proceeding." You can watch Tuchman's report here.

FACT: Obama's birth certificate was not "missing."

In a recent interview with CNN, Trump claimed that Obama's birth certificate was "missing." This is not true, and if he or anyone else repeats this claim, it's important to be prepared with the facts. As CNN's Tuchman reported, Dr. Chiyome Fukino, director of the Hawaii State Department of Health, "found the original birth certificate stored in a vault in the Department of Health building." Fukino told Tuchman: "It was absolutely authentic. He was absolutely born here in the state of Hawaii."

So, no, Obama's so-called long form birth certificate was absolutely not "missing" prior to the White House's release of it, and it's important that this claim is debunked any time it's repeated.

FACT: Obama did not spend millions of dollars to hide his birth certificate.

Another popular birther conspiracy claim is that Obama has spent $2 million trying to prevent the release of his birth certificate. Obviously, this is not true, as Obama has released his birth certificate. Salon's Justin Elliott looked into the genesis of the claim and reported "the $2 million figure is baseless":

While the $2 million figure has now been invoked thousands of times around the Web, it appears to have originated on WorldNetDaily, a right-wing news website that conducts original (and often unreliable) reporting on a variety of conspiracy theories.

[...]

Specifically, WND's Chelsea Schilling wrote a series of articles on the legal bills in 2009. See here, here and here. According to the WND articles, the Obama campaign paid $1.7 million in fees to the law firm Perkins Coie between October 2008 and October 2009.

Perkins Coie's Bob Bauer, who is now White House counsel, represented Obama in at least one birther lawsuit that WND has also written about. In 2009, Bauer fired off a brief letter to an attorney who brought a case questioning Obama's eligibility to be president. Bauer warned the attorney that the case was frivolous and asked him to stop pursuing it. (The case is called Hollister v. Soetoro -- with Soetoro referring to the name President Obama supposedly used as a child in Indonesia. It was recently appealed to the Supreme Court, which turned it down.)

The implication of the WND stories -- though not explicitly stated -- is that because Perkins Coie worked on a birther suit, and because the Obama campaign paid Perkins Coie $1.7 million, therefore the campaign paid $1.7 million fighting birther suits. That's an obvious logical fallacy.

Indeed, just last month Roll Call published a look at the Obama campaign's post-election legal spending -- now totaling $2.8 million, most of it to Perkins Coie. DNC National Press Secretary Hari Sevugan told the paper: "The campaign has incurred ordinary legal expenses related to the wind-down of its operations and other legal services which all campaigns incur and which are proportional to the unprecedented size of this campaign." Roll Call continued:

Legal costs for presidential campaigns can balloon following Election Day as these organizations face compliance issues and sometimes court cases stemming from the campaign season.

Sevugan said some legal fees were needed to defend the campaign against "unmeritorious" suits, including one challenging Obama's citizenship.

So, yes, it's clear that the Obama campaign has spent some money fighting so-called eligibility lawsuits. But the $2 million figure is baseless.

FACT: Obama's grandparents did not plant a birth announcement in a Honolulu newspaper.

Trump has repeatedly pushed the claim that Obama's grandparents somehow planted a birth announcement in a Hawaii paper to make it appear as if Obama was born in Hawaii. This claim is false as birth announcements were sent directly to the newspapers from Hawaii's Department of Health. In his CNN report, Tuchman spoke with Dan Nakaso of the Honolulu Star Advertiser, who said that this theory is "not possible":

TUCHMAN: There are a number of people who believe that Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States, that his mother or grandmother called the newspaper and gave false information that he was born in the United States. It is it possible that could have gotten in the newspaper?

NAKASO: No, that's not possible. Under the system that existed back then, there was no avenue for people to submit information in that way.

TUCHMAN: So how did the information get in the paper?

NAKASO: The information came directly from the state Department of Health.

TUCHMAN: We confirmed that fact with the Health Department, too. All birth announcements printed in the paper came directly from the birth records of the hospital.

FACT: Obama's original birth certificate doesn't include a religious affiliation.

Another claim pushed by Trump is that Obama is not releasing an original copy of his birth certificate because it includes information Obama doesn't want people to know - including a religious affiliation. As Tuchman reported, there is "no space whatsoever for religion" included on the original Hawaii birth certificate forms and the Health Department official who has seen Obama's original birth certificate "confirms there is no mention whatsoever of religion."

FACT: Obama's grandmother did not say that Obama was born in Kenya.

A common falsehood pushed by Trump and birthers is that Obama's grandmother confirmed Obama was born in Kenya. This is false and has been repeatedly debunked, as in the conversation in question, Obama's step-grandmother repeatedly said that Obama was born in Hawaii. For more details, see here.

FACT: There are people who remember a young Obama and his family in Hawaii.

You may hear birther conspiracy theorist claiming that nobody remembers Obama from when he was a child in Hawaii. This is false. In a subsequent report, CNN's Tuchman spoke with numerous people who remember a young Obama and his family while they were in Hawaii. You can watch Tuchman's interviews with them here.

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