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Happy "Birth" Day, Mr. President; Welcome to the Post-Fact Era

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Barack Obama celebrates his 49th birthday today. Or so he claims. According to a CNN survey, more than a quarter of Americans doubt that Obama was born in the United States; 29% say he probably was; and a mere plurality of 42% have no doubt. This despite widely reported empirical documentation of the President’s birth in Hawaii in 1961, contemporary newspaper reports of his birth and the dismissal of birther rumors by Hawaii’s Republican governor. Speaking of which, big shocker, there’s a partisan divide in the findings: 41% of Republicans believe Obama probably or definitely was not born here, next to (a not entirely comforting itself) 15% of Democrats.

There is no reasonable basis to believe Obama was born outside the U.S.; a lot of people believe it anyway. People like to think that, if only the media did its job better, if only facts were more widely reported, myths and misinformation would be dispelled. It’s part of the premise of media criticism. But news like this makes me wonder if that’s wholly true. I’m not sure if, today, there is a system of reporting that can dissuade people from believing what they want.

I mean yes, information helps. To an extent. But I’m not sure there’s much more, in this case, the media could have done to compel people to disbelieve the myth. Unlike some contentious subjects, the press haven’t generally handled it as a “some say this, some say that, who knows who’s right?” matter. (As opposed to, say, the history of reporting on climate change.) The survey report linked above flatly says, “CNN and other news organizations have thoroughly debunked the rumors,” and lays out the case again.

The press hasn’t done everything perfectly. CNN, for instance, gave a platform to Lou Dobbs, who indulged birther rumors (in part on his radio show), even while his network’s reporting invalidated them. And whatever straight-news outlets were reporting, partisan pundits have been willing to fan the doubts. But the press seems to have fairly consistently, for over a year, been reporting that there is simply no there there to these rumors.

So what exactly is the media approach that would have dispelled the conspiracy theories? Ignoring them? Covering them wall-to-wall? I’m not sure either would have made a dent. When it comes to some politically charged controversies, many people simply live in a post-fact zone, in which the theoretical possibility of a wild conspiracy (that confirms their worst beliefs about their adversaries) trumps the extreme likelihood of its being false (which is no fun at all). And they have plenty of talkers willing to encourage them.

They’ve also constructed self-reinforcing belief fortresses, in which media debunking of their beliefs only serves to confirm them. Take this post, for instance. If you believe Obama was born in Kenya, you probably also think that here I am, a liberal member of the liberal mainstream media, trying to impress on you information to the benefit of our liberal President! Doesn’t the obvious untrustworthiness of the entire institution I serve delegitimize any “proof” I might offer you? Why would I be working so hard to convince you that you’re wrong if you weren’t right? Consider the source! What am I so afraid of? &c.

I’ve often heard the argument, and it’s a tempting one, that if only the media would do their jobs better, press more, be more vehement, show more guts, make people see the truth, that the scales would fall from people’s eyes and they would see the world clearly. In some cases, that’s true. But we now also have better, more fool-proof adhesives for making sure our chosen scales stay on our eyes. That’s not to say the press should just throw up its hands, but it is the world we live in. Happy birthday.

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