FLASHBACK: When Fox News Ignored The Birther Story In 2008

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

One of the many mysteries surrounding the zombie-like resurrection of the thoroughly debunked Obama birth certificate story and its renaissance within right-wing media, and especially Fox News is, "Why now?" Other than Donald Trump's decision to wallow in the shallow conspiracy, what has triggered the sudden interest and the sudden charade that the birther story is legitimate?

The questions mount when you look back and realize that during the 2008 campaign, when the birther story was first peddled and, one could argue, was more relevant as a national campaign played out, Fox News essentially ignored the story. As Obama was running for the White House and questions from the far right were raised about Obama's eligibility and his birthplace, Fox News (wisely) turned a blind eye to the story. Then, in 2009, in the wake of Obama's landslide electoral win, when Fox News personalities did address the birther issue it was usually to belittle the story and mock it as a foolish conspiracy theory.

That's right. In 2008 and 2009, Fox News basically couldn't be bothered with the birther story. Fast-forward to 2011, though, and the Fox team can't stop talking about it.

Why? In terms of actual birther "news," there is none today. And of course there hasn't been any "news" in three years, because nobody on the right-wing fringe has been able to advance the so-called story. Not one inch.

Unlike the right wing's hollow pursuit of the Whitewater non-scandal during the Clinton years -- at least that story had some actual twists and turns and breaking developments to cover. Not so with the birther story, which remains, as a news event, utterly stagnant.

And guess what? That's how Fox News treated the topic in 2008.

Looking back at Fox News that year (or at least looking back at the prime-time show transcripts cataloged by Nexis), it's startling how little the channel cared about the birther story, given Fox's current fascination. Based on my search of 2008, I found exactly two pre-election references to the Obama/birth certificate story.

The first came on August 15, in a report about a new, birther-friendly book by Obama critic Jerome Corsi, who claimed he could have learned more about Obama's past if the candidate "would release primary documents like his birth certificate." (Interestingly, the Fox News report seemed to dismiss the birther allegations, noting Corsi's book contains "numerous factual errors especially about Obama's origins and family" and "repeats falsehoods" that were "long again disproved." Ouch.)

Then on Sept. 16, host Bill O'Reilly answered some viewer mail on the air [emphasis added]:

Mel Westerfield, Brandon, Mississippi: "Bill, your report said Obama was born in Hawaii. It is my understanding he was born in Kenya."

Not accurate, sir. He was born in Honolulu. His birth certificate is authentic.

Bill Daniel, Fairfield, Texas: "Bill, you failed to mention Obama's mother and father were not married."

That is false, sir. They married on February 2, 1961. Now I can go on with these letters, but you get the picture. Please do not believe who you read on the Net.

And that's it. Those are the only relevant references to "Obama" and "birth certificate" I could find in Nexis for Fox News in 2008, prior to Election Day.

The following year, Fox News' interest in the story didn't change much, and when birthers did get mentioned, they were usually mocked. That year, O'Reilly called the cause "irrational" and "dumb," guest Bernie Goldberg denounced followers as "nut job birthers," while Glenn Beck dismissed them as "idiots."

All of which again prompts this question for Fox News: Why now?

If the birther story was of zero interest to Fox News during the 2008 campaign, and if it was mocked in 2009, why would the exact same set of birther facts now be of paramount interest? It's rather baffling. Although the channel's colossal flip-flop would seem to confirm that Fox's new-found fascination with Obama's birth certificate has nothing to do with news or journalism, and everything to do with partisan politics.


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