Brendan Nyhan on How We All Went Crazy

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 24 2010 11:17 AM

Brendan Nyhan on How We All Went Crazy

Brendan Nyhan has a useful guide to something I touched on last week -- the mainstreaming of the idea that Barack Obama is un-American, either in his religion or in his goals for the country.

[T]here's simply no question that elites have played a role in fosteringthe misperception that Obama is Muslim. It's also worth noting thatdescribing the myth as an "odd" belief like ESP or the sun revolvingaround the earth trivializes its political consequences. In reality,conservative and Republican elites have repeatedly leveraged the myth to suggest that Obama is a traitor or disloyal to the United States:

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Reading down his list, you see a loose definition of elite, from U.S. senators to the discredited blogger Debbie Schlussel. (I refer specifically to her false claim that Sean Hannity's "Freedom Concerts" are scams.) But I recognized all the names, and not just because I like covering this stuff. A lot of the citations go back to Media Matters scooplets reporting on the progress of the Obama smears in fringe conservative media.

Two things here. One, someone really needs to study how fringe claims are amplified by media watchdog groups that report on them. I'm not "blaming the victim" here. I'm really curious. If a tree falls in the woods and the lumberjack demands Barack Obama's birth certificate, does anyone hear it? How many more people hear it if The Huffington Post calls it out? Yesterday, that site had a micro-scoop about an RNC committee member who tweeted that Obama had admitted he was a Muslim. A legitimate story, but did reporting on it spread the rumor or amplify the truth? I really don't know.

The other thing: There is almost no downside if you want to make an extreme claim about Barack Obama. You generate outrage from the left but you get attaboys from the conservative base. Is this much different than the rewards that liberals could get for making extreme claims about George W. Bush? I think it is, because the conservative media -- Fox, talk radio, all the way down to forward e-mails -- is a fantastic transmission device whose consumers are ready to believe that the rest of the media is lying to them. There is really no downside for Frank Gaffney when he says that Obama or his nominees are bringing radical Islamic law to America. It gets to the conservative base, which makes it a "controversy," which means that the rest of the media has to cover this Very Important Issue Americans Are Concerned About.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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