On January 20, Mike Evans, a relatively unknown entertainment journalist, claimed on a Twin Cities classic rock station that he had talked to Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) and "Neil says that he searched everywhere using his powers as governor ... there is no Barack Obama birth certificate in Hawaii. Absolutely no proof at all that he was born in Hawaii."
Evans' story was a hoax. Six days later, Evans told FoxNews.com that "Neil never told me there was no birth certificate ... I never talked to him."*
The retraction wasn't surprising. There is no evidence President Obama was born outside of the United States, and Abercrombie told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on January 18 that Hawaii indeed has proof of Obama's birth.
In other words, responsible media outlets should have been hesitant to promote the Evans "no proof" story. Instead several, led by Mediaite, helped legitimize the story, and fuel the fantasies of birthers.
On the morning of January 25, Jack Cashill blogged about the radio interview on the conservative The American Thinker with the headline, "Friend says Abercrombie told him, 'There is no birth certificate!'" Cashill himself has questionable credentials: He's a conspiracy theorist who believes Obama's Dreams From My Father was actually written by Bill Ayers, and Barack Obama Sr. isn't really the father of President Obama.
The Thinker regularly runs dubious sources and stories, including about Obama's birth certificate. Indeed, in an update, Cashill writes of an affidavit "from former Hawaii elections clerk Tim Adams" that there's no birth certificate. Adams, as Media Matters has documented, made his claim on a "pro-white" radio program at a conference of "white supremacists."
The story got a mainstream boost, however, when Mediaite ran with it (headline, "Governor Of Hawaii Reportedly Tells Friend That 'There Is No Birth Certificate'") an hour later. Mediaite editor Alex Alvarez wrote the story, and hat-tipped the American Thinker.
At no point did Mediaite note there's no actual evidence supporting the birthers. To the contrary, the article took a passive 'he-said, she-said' stance over "the debate." The article concluded, "Whether true or not, stories such as this - and the debate they inspire - have the potential to dog Obama as he makes his bid for re-election come 2012." Mediaite's article:
We have a hunch that this bit of news will get people talking, loudly and over one another: Last week, celebrity journalist Mike Evans, apparently a friend of Hawaii governor Neil Abercrombie, shared a story with KQRS morning radio show listeners about the search for Barack Obama's birth certificate.
As you know, birthers insist that the President was not born in the U.S. and have been pushing for proof one way or the other in the form of a birth certificate. Abercrombie has been extremely vocal about defending Obama's eligibility, even telling the Los Angeles Times that he was present at Obama's birth and remembers him as a child, but, if Evans story is to be believed, he acted in haste.
Evans shares that, after a fruitless search through Hawaii hospitals, Abercrombie confided to him that (in Evans' words) "there is no Barack Obama birth certificate in Hawaii, absolutely no proof at all that Obama was born in Hawaii."
Whether true or not, stories such as this - and the debate they inspire - have the potential to dog Obama as he makes his bid for re-election come 2012.
On Twitter, after the story was revealed to be a hoax, I wrote to Alvarez that the problem with birther scoops is that they're consistently wrong and poorly sourced. Alvarez wrote back: "The story, as I saw it, was more along the lines of 'these rumors persist,' not that Evans or his claim are credible." Mediaite editor Colby Hall offered a similar defense of the site when it came under criticism for publishing an article trumpeting a "National Enquirer's Obama Sex Scandal" story.
After Mediaite posted its story, The Daily Caller posted its own article at 4:52pm ("Friend says Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie told him there is no Obama birth certificate"). At 7:58pm, discredited birther author Jerome Corsi posted an article about the Evans interview.
Fox News' Fox Nation followed suit the following day, linking to the Caller's piece with the headline, "Friend Says Hawaii Gov Told Him There Is No Obama Birth Certificate: Daily Caller.") Fox Nation embedded Mediaite's audio player of Evans' radio interview.
Perhaps ironically, given Fox News' birther portfolio, it was FoxNews.com that quashed the Evans story. Later on January 26, FoxNews.com's Jana Winter reported that Evans said "he misspoke when he said last week that Hawaii's governor told him he was unable to find President Barack Obama's original birth certificate after a search of state and hospital archives."
Following FoxNews.com's story, Mediaite posted an article noting Evan's retraction. (As of 12:00pm, Mediaite has not updated the text of its original article. UPDATE: The article has since been updated noting the retraction.) The Daily Caller and Fox Nation have since also posted separate pieces noting Evan's retraction, with Fox Nation calling it "Another Strange Twist..."
In its "final chapter" debunking birth certificate rumors, PolitiFact noted that there's "not one shred of evidence" supporting birthers and "that's true no matter how many people cling to some hint of doubt and use the Internet to fuel their innate sense of distrust."
Unfortunately when it came to the decision of whether to promote the suspect Evans-birther story, outlets like Mediaite and Fox Nation decided "to fuel their innate sense of distrust."
*A word here was changed for clarity. I originally wrote that Evans' "statement" was a "hoax," which I meant to convey that what he said wasn't true.