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CNN's Klein on Dobbs and Birthers

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At TV press tour, there are the things networks want to talk about and the things you want to ask them about. CNN president Jon Klein wanted to talk about John King, Christiane Amanpour and Soledad O’Brien, who joined him on stage to promote, respectively, State of the Union, a new international-news show and the documentary Latino in America.

During the Q&A, I asked Klein about something he’s probably tired of talking about: Lou Dobbs and the “birther” rumors. Why is it good for CNN to have a news-show host lending credence to rumors that CNN’s own reporting factually debunked? (In this case, rumors that Obama is not a natural-born U.S. citizen and does not have a legitimate birth certificate. Actually, I first slipped and said “gift certificate,” raising specter of the POTUS trying to scam Macy’s with a phony gift card.)

Klein’s answer is that the controversy is about two things: the “facts” and the “flap.” “There is no doubt” it is a fact Obama was born in Hawaii, Klein said, and he added that Dobbs does not dispute that. Then there’s the “flap”—the people who continue to believe the rumors—which Klein says Dobbs is simply covering. 

That would be a reasonable answer—about someone else. Say, Brian Williams, who did a Nightly News segment explaining and dispatching the rumor. Not so much Dobbs, who, for instance, told a caller to his radio show who claimed that Obama is actually Kenyan: “Certainly your view can’t be discounted.”

In general, Klein is absolutely right that sometimes you need to cover the flap. But when it involves statements you know to be contrary to fact, you do it as such. The problem with Dobbs’ coverage is that he’s brought on guests to debate the rumor in he-said-she-said format. That’s not “covering the flap”; it’s helping the purveyors of a rumor cloud up the facts. Which is not something you want a news network to be doing. 

It’s too bad, because Klein does identify an actual legitimate news conundrum; when does a (false) rumor become so widespread that it’s the duty of reporters to knock it down rather than ignore it? On stage, John King talked about wrestling with this during the campaign, when voters would continually come up and demand to know why CNN wasn’t reporting that Obama was a Muslim.

The influence of rumormongers is a tough question, and it’s hard to know how best to handle them in any instance. But asking news hosts not to encourage them would be a good place to start.