"Born in Kenya"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 21 2012 12:09 PM

"Born in Kenya"

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CHICAGO, IL - MAY 21: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with British Prime Minister David Cameron during the NATO meeting on Afghanistan May 21, 2012 at McCormick Place in Chicago, Illinois. As sixty heads of state converge for the two day summit that will address the situation in Afghanistan among other global defense issues, thousands of demonstrators have taken the streets to protest. (Photo by John Gress/Getty Images)

Photo by John Gress/Getty Images

Breitbart.com's latest installment of "The Vetting" -- its ongoing series of Obama stories that the lazy mainstream media never touched -- was misunderstood right out of the gate. The misunderstanding was bipartisan, diverse. The story was about a 1991 brochure by the Acton & Dystel literary agency, then representing Barack Obama. In the brochure, Obama became a hot young proposition who was "born in Kenya."

The Breitbart editors were clear on one point: They were not invoking birtherism. Their scoop was "evidence," according to site editor Joel Pollak, "not of the President's foreign origin, but that Barack Obama's public persona has perhaps been presented differently at different times."

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But this is the internet. People don't like to read things. They like to react to things. A quick sampling from the comments -- for a piece that has been shared nearly 100,000 times on Facebook -- finds stuff like "so sick that they are going to let this illegal President stay in the white house" and "he willfully ran and served as President of the United States when he fully knew he was unqualified to legally run" and "His LFB [long form birth certificate] is a forgery. All one has to do is look at it in illustrator and open it in the layers panel." And the liberal bloggy take on the story was that Breitbart.com had gone all birther on us.

No! That wasn't the point! The point was that the "born in Kenya" bio lived in the brochure for decades and no one talked about it. Doug Ross, following up, finds that it stayed online until two months after Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign. "He is said," wrote Pollak, "to have cultivated an "international" identity until well into his adulthood."

So who bungled the "Kenya" fact? The problem: No one will fess up. Miriam Goderich, who has taken credit for "fact-checking" the item, won't say how she checked it. (I asked and have heard nothing.) Her fact-checking didn't include the high-profile New York Times mini-profile of Obama from 1990. According to the paper -- which quoted Obama -- he was "born in Hawaii." The first person on record misstating that Obama was Kenyan was, in fact, Goderich. It reminds me of the early waves of 2008 stories that "confirmed" Obama's African roots -- they were based on interviews with Kenyans who said, mistakenly and in broken English, that Obama must have been born there. People see what they want in Obama, which used to be a (creepy) advantage. Now, it's something Obama has to answer for, or the media isn't vetting him.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.