Bret Baier Birther Report Draws Journalism Ethics Fire

Journalism veterans and ethics experts are criticizing Fox News' Bret Baier for treating as credible the false claim that President Barack Obama might not have been born in the United States, with one experienced news person calling his recent coverage of the issue “a complete abandonment of integrity and responsibility.”

Baier, often viewed as among the more credible news people at Fox News, reported in a news brief Monday night that Arizona Republican Secretary of State Ken Bennett threatened to remove Obama's name from the Arizona ballot if Hawaii officials didn't prove to his satisfaction that Obama was born in Hawaii.

Baier stated: “Bennett says he is not, quote 'a birther' but wants to clear up the issue for concerned Arizonans.” But Baier failed to “clear up the issue” for Fox's viewers by stating outright that President Obama was, in fact, born in Hawaii, as indicated by his birth certificate and a contemporaneous newspaper announcement of his birth.

This marked at least the third time this year that Baier reported on developments in the debunked 'birther' movement without providing this crucial context.

By contrast, Fox News' own Shepard Smith stated in 2011: “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.”

In a radio interview Tuesday Bennett stated he had withdrawn the threat and told listeners: “If I embarrassed the state, I apologize.” The Arizona Republic reported that a “Hawaii official sent Bennett's office verification of birth for President Obama on Tuesday, according to both Bennett and Hawaii officials.”

Baier did not respond to several requests for comment.

Several veteran journalists and media critics criticized Baier for his reporting on the subject.

“Whatever the motivation of Arizona's secretary of state it is a complete abandonment of integrity and responsibility for any news gatherer or disseminator not to ask the questions necessary to put a report on the secretary of state's actions in a context that would allow the reader or viewer of the report to make a decision on how he or she can use the information,” said Bill Kovach, co-founder of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief of The New York Times. "In this case there is a rich history on the subject that raises deep and serious question about the motivation of anyone questioning President Obama's qualification for holding office including his citizenship and matters surround the time and place of his birth. To ignore this rich history of facts is irresponsible."

Tom Fiedler, dean of the College of Communication at Boston University and former executive editor of The Miami Herald, cited Baier's error of omission.

“An error of omission is the more insidious error because it typically escapes being corrected,” Fiedler said in an email. “Nothing in his report is inaccurate. The problem lies in Baier's failure to include one additional fact: that, in due regard for the laws of Hawaii, the president has released an official copy of his birth certificate stating as legal fact that his mother gave birth to him in Honolulu. The state of Hawaii accepts this. The U.S. State Department accepts this.”

James Rainey, media writer for the Los Angeles Times, criticized all news outlets that continue to question Obama's birth status:

“Obama's birth in Hawaii has been verified and documented. Every reputable news outlet has concluded that there is no doubt that he is a native born American. Those who continue to air silly theories about the president's foreign birth -- especially without clearly stating the evidence to the contrary -- put their own credibility at risk.”

Alicia Shepard, former ombudsman for National Public Radio, said Baier is shirking his duty as a reporter not to offer the entire set of facts.

“There are some things that are no longer in dispute,” Shepard wrote in an email. “One is that the president was born in Hawaii. It seems disingenuous to allow it to be an issue. Yes, you can report the Arizona Secretary of State's actions. But it's your ethical duty as a reporter to point out that this is a false issue. Baier failed his viewers in not doing so.”

Kelly McBride, ethics instructor at The Poynter Institute, agreed: “I think it's irresponsible for Bret Baier to report on the [Secretary of State] of Arizona's threat to remove Obama from the ballot without emphatically stating that the birth certificate issue has been settled. It is not like they are making things up, they are choosing to not report the fact that the birth certificate question is done and over with and already settled.”

Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker, said such actions come from the entire Fox News approach.

“The problem I suspect is that his instincts collide with the culture of the organization that he works for and that is a culture that feasts on issues like 'was Obama born in the United States?' and they get a lot of mileage out of that among their core of conservative viewers,” Auletta said in a phone interview. “You would like to see him do what Shepard Smith did, which is basically go with the facts and as a newsman, I suspect Bret Baier is not sitting there saying, 'how can I please Roger Ailes or the birther movement?' But it is the place they work in, it becomes a mind-meld. You see it with the morning shows.”

Auletta also stated that Bret Baier “ought to get his wrist slapped.”

For David Zurawik, television writer for The Baltimore Sun, having Baier engage in such poor reporting is a sign that Fox is using “dirty tricks.”

“He's used in a clever way by Fox, as he is the friendly face of what goes on behind the scenes, you look at Bret Baier in the anchor seat with the Boy Scout face and think he couldn't be part of the evil empire,” Zurawik said in an interview. “They haven't had him do any of the Fox dirty tricks, he hasn't had to carry the water anyone else has had to carry. Now he is being asked to pay for it by giving this crazy 'birther' stuff some credibility.”