Donald Trump tried Friday morning to leave behind his longstanding embrace of the discredited assertion that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and therefore cannot legally be president. But Trump’s brief statement, at a purported press conference in Washington where he refused to take questions from reporters, mainly recycled false assertions he has made in the past, notably that Hillary Clinton was the originator of the so-called “birther” allegation and that it was Trump himself who had previously put it to rest.
Trump’s mouth did speak the words on Friday, “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.” But that sound bite only raises more questions, including the one shouted by an unidentifiable male reporter as Trump left the podium: “Why did it take so long?”
Trump did not apologize to the president or take any responsibility for his years of championing—and politically benefitting from—a claim that was exhaustively investigated and repeatedly disproven. The notion that Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, was born outside the United States and thus was ineligible to be president, became an article of faith among the nativist right during Obama’s first term. Trump repeatedly stoked such conspiracy thinking, and the resulting grassroots enthusiasm helped propel his presidential campaign. Over time, the allegation, which Trump never disavowed, came to permeate the broader Republican electorate. Going into the November elections, a staggering 72 percent of Republicans, nearly three out of four, have doubts that Obama was born in the United States, according to a poll released in August by NBC News.
The question now is whether Trump’s statement Friday will indeed put the birther controversy behind him. The Clinton campaign insists that it shouldn’t. Calling for Trump to apologize to Obama, the campaign said, “Trump has spent years peddling a racist conspiracy aimed at undermining the first African-American president. He can’t just take it back.”
But it is the news media that will cast the decisive vote here. Will reporters—and, crucially, their editorial and executive superiors—treat this issue with the seriousness and sustained coverage it deserves, pursuing the many questions raised by Trump’s supposed change of heart? Or will they follow Trump’s intended script and let bygones be bygones?
As Americans prepare to select a new president in November, they deserve some answers: When did Trump change his views about Obama being born in the United States, and why? Does he repudiate his previous position or simply no longer hold it? Does he recognize that many Americans, including but not limited to African-Americans, felt offended by his championing of the birther conspiracy theories, and how does he plan to gain their trust?
Ordinary citizens can’t obtain these answers on their own. Only the media has the access and the influence to force Trump to clarify his position. But doing so will require journalists, especially those on television, to do a much better job of fulfilling the role the nation’s founders envisioned for a free press: challenging and holding accountable any and all who aspire to govern the people.
Politics is inevitably part of campaign coverage, but journalists and citizens alike should understand that the birther controversy goes beyond mere partisanship, to a fundamental question of democratic governance and national identity. To accuse a sitting president of being illegitimate is an extremely serious charge. Since the Constitution states that only native-born citizens can be president, proof that Obama was born elsewhere would mean that American democracy had been hijacked. It would mean that Obama has been wielding power illegally the past seven years and should be removed from office. It would imply that every action Obama and his administration have taken since Inauguration Day in January 2009 has lacked legal basis and therefore could be rescinded by a future president and Congress.
To be clear, Donald Trump has the right to hold and espouse whatever views he chooses; that’s democracy. No presidential candidate, however, gets to have it both ways. A candidate cannot energize an extreme segment of the electorate by repeatedly championing discredited claims, and then pretend to have left such views behind when he needs to appeal to more moderate voters.
In the United States, one function of the press is to accurately transmit the views of elected officials and candidates to the public. But a second, equally important role is to hold lawmakers and other powerful interests accountable for their words and actions.
Despite notable exceptions, American journalism has fallen woefully short of that second responsibility during the 2016 presidential campaign, with television—by far the most influential part of the media—performing especially poorly. The failure of NBC’s Matt Lauer in the “Commander-in-Chief Forum” on September 7 to challenge Trump’s patently false claim to have opposed the Iraq war was only the latest embarrassment.
The problem runs deeper, however. Much more consequential has been the way that the executives running America’s networks have gleefully sacrificed journalistic integrity on the altar of mega-profits. Every network has given the Trump campaign the equivalent of billions of dollars worth of free advertising by broadcasting whatever the candidate is saying at a given moment but then not devoting similar emphasis to telling viewers when his remarks conflict with the facts. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” gushed Les Moonves, the CBS executive chairman and CEO.
An obsession with ratings over substance, combined with unwarranted deference to dubious statements by a telegenic right-wing politician, date back to the media’s adoration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. But to watch the current, even more egregious, debasing of journalistic standards is to be reminded of Marx’s aphorism that history repeats, unfolding first as tragedy, second as farce.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. When it wants to, the press knows how to hold candidates’ feet to the fire. After all, the media wield one of the greatest forms of political power there is: the power to decide what is and is not part of the national conversation. Thus in 2008, sustained pressure from all corners of the media compelled candidate Obama to address incendiary remarks made by his pastor. In 2016, Hillary Clinton has faced similar pressure regarding her private email server while Secretary of State.
The journalistic logistics are straightforward enough: campaign beat reporters have to ask the relevant questions over and over, editorial writers and TV pundits likewise have to keep raising the issue, and the editors and producers who shape the overall coverage at news outlets across the board have to keep the pressure on until the candidate finally answers or is shown to be dodging the issue.
There is no reason Trump should not be held to this same journalistic standard, especially on a matter as serious as the legitimacy of the sitting president and the functionality of American democracy. This dispute goes well beyond the strong differences between Trump and Clinton on specific issues of policy, such as climate change and Obamacare. This dispute is about whether the United States is still a nation of law or, as some of Trump’s supporters apparently believe, a tyranny of stealth.
If journalists do finally press Trump to clarify his views, the usual suspects will doubtless howl that the media is crucifying him to further its liberal agenda. Journalists—and their executive superiors—need to have the spine to let them howl. Ascertaining the truth about a vital public issue and sharing it with the American people is not liberalism. It is journalism.
Author: Mark Hertsgaard