Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Why a 'Birther' Leader Is News

By Andy Alexander

More than any other story this week, Post readers have responded to Tuesday’s profile of Orly Taitz, who has emerged as a leader of the “birther” movement challenging Barack Obama’s eligibility to be president. But what is fascinating about the reaction from the readers I've heard from is that most aren’t objecting to anything in the 2,500-word story. Rather, they’re angry that there was a story at all.

Bethesda reader Steven Berson complained in an e-mail that it was a “disgrace” that The Post would print such “trash.” He added: “What makes her claim newsworthy?”

More than 40 other readers e-mailed or called with similar objections.

For those who didn’t read it, the profile by staff writer Liza Mundy portrayed Taitz, a California lawyer and dentist who grew up in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, as a relentless crusader for a cause that has been widely discredited. Indeed, Mundy details Taitz’s numerous failed court filings, including those in a case pending in California, intended to show that Obama was born in Kenya or possibly Indonesia, despite repeated insistence by Hawaiian officials that he was born in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 1961. They have even produced a digitally-scanned image of the president’s birth certificate.

“But never mind!” Mundy wrote. “The myth of ineligibility has embedded itself in the consciousness of determined adversaries, chief among them Taitz, who in her allegation-filled but congenial interview explains why she wants Obama to surrender the vital records that underlie the computer-generated document. She has developed a scenario whereby Obama's American mother gave birth in Kenya, his father's native country, then persuaded bureaucrats to falsify his records and ease him back into this country. She also conjectures that he may be a citizen of Indonesia, where Obama lived for a time after his mother remarried.”

“Ultimately,’ Mundy wrote, “her rhetoric is laced with a suspicion that Obama may be an agent for a foreign power, a modern Manchurian candidate.”

The many readers who complained about the story are right that Taitz operates on the fringe. They’re also correct that the claims of “birthers” have been thoroughly discredited.

But they’re wrong that she isn’t newsworthy. Every week, I receive dozens of e-mails from readers insisting The Post and other news organizations are hiding the truth about Obama’s birthplace. A Pew poll in August showed eight in 10 surveyed have heard "a lot" or "a little" about claims that Obama was not born in the U.S. and is therefore ineligible to be president. And Mundy’s story explained that Taitz has emerged as a sort of point person for a range of ardent anti-government groups embracing outlandish conspiracy theories that involve Obama, dictatorship and totalitarianism.

Editor Sydney Trent, Mundy’s editor on the profile, explained why they felt Taitz was newsworthy:

Long after President Obama's staff produced his birth certificate, the topic continued to circulate - at the health care town halls this summer and generally in the national conversation, to the point where most Americans were aware of the rumors but some people still thought there might be some truth to them. In other words, they have not been entirely disspelled. Also, while one birther case was dismissed in Georgia last month, others, like the California case we mentioned in the story, are pending. Liza talked to experts in the course of her reporting who said that the birthers campaign remains influential with right-wing militias and others.

Orly Taitz is arguably the most vocal and visible person behind this campaign. It made perfect sense to us to profile her. Ignoring an issue or someone you disagree with doesn't automatically negate their influence, and a rigorously-reported profile such as this is most definitely not an endorsement. I don't see how anyone could have read Liza's Style story and walked away thinking The Post is somehow siding with Taitz and her supporters.

Pultizer Prize-winning Post columnist Gene Robinson was asked about it Tuesday in an online chat. “All I can ask is: Why?” wrote a reader from San Diego. Robinson responded:

I'm getting a lot of questions about the Orly Taitz piece. I thought it did a great job of answering questions that have been nagging at me since the 'birther' thing began: Who is this woman, what's her agenda and why is she so impervious to established fact? So I was glad to see the story,” Robinson responded. “But I don't want to dodge your basic question, which is a good one: Why pay any more attention to these people than, say, to your average naked guy on the street corner screaming that the sky is falling? I guess I come down on the side of more information rather than less. I don't think sane people will be made insane by exposure to the life and times of Orly Taitz.

By Andy Alexander  | October 8, 2009; 2:03 PM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Social Media Guidelines Renew "Transparency" Debate
Next: Omblog on Hiatus



In the end though, the Post did advance this lunatic's rants by profiling her, and giving her valuable print space.

Just because someone reaches the heights of ignorance, it doesn't mean, the Post needs to focus on that.

And that's a darn shame.

Posted by: RG-Texas | October 8, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

I can not believe I am saying this but, I agree with Gene Robinson.

Posted by: d1carter | October 8, 2009 5:44 PM | Report abuse

Your argument that what's her name is newsworthy is a pile of dingo's kidneys.

You didn't help me understand one whit better what it is that turned her into the narcissistic nutcase she is. But it was worthwhile reading the piece for the sake of watching you guys try to do your "both sides" faux-journalism trip, at the same time you felt obliged to make frequent public service disclosures that in fact her theories had been completely debunked. Hilarious! Please do more puff pieces on crackpots.

I'm sure you can find at least a few more loony-toons whose complete schtick is de-legitimatizing President Obama.

Posted by: fzdybel | October 9, 2009 1:24 AM | Report abuse

"Ignoring an issue or someone you disagree with doesn't automatically negate their influence..."

Now I have to wonder who is Sydney Trent?

This is not just a disagreement...

This is bare-aqq stupidity, it is nutcases so convinced, so beyond the pale they are dangerous... and every thing they twist into their favor, a mention in a legitimate paper just pushes them further into it..

shame on you WAPO!

Posted by: dutchess2 | October 9, 2009 2:17 AM | Report abuse

This logic of the Post editors and Robinson are potty.

Quite seriously, suppose one didn't know that people believe in the 21st century that the earth is flat, but haad an inclination towards credulity, and they opened the respected Washhington Post, and saw an article seriously discussing the views of one of the people pushing the idea, would they not conclude that "If the WP takes thias flat-earth thing seriously, then there must be something in it?"
Perception often overrides endeavour and such a reader might just turn the page,without really reading it, and be left with the perception that the idea is a serious one that can be discussed by respectable people. Who said "the medium is the message?" Was Mcluhan wrong, in the Post editors' opinion? They should ask themselves what subliminal impulse made the writer suggest writing on this particular subject, out of the billions that are cryi ng to be written up in the USA of today? Beware those who claim to be devil's advocates. They might REALLY be devil's advocates. Literally.
Wait until a birther brandishes the WP piece at a rally and quotes selectively from it.

Posted by: martinduodu | October 9, 2009 5:54 AM | Report abuse

What you say would be more persuasive if the Post profiled more people who have even more support among the American public. For example, in a Post - ABC poll, Americans supported Medicare for All over any system based on private insurance by a 2 to 1 margin. Stii Woolhandler has been the icon of the single payer movement for many years, but you never see her name mentioned in the Post, let alone see a profile on her.

Posted by: lensch | October 9, 2009 8:00 AM | Report abuse

I will say that Taitz are in the same moral and intellectual league. They are both mentally ill people. What idiots. It says much about the state of the gop.

Posted by: davidsawh | October 9, 2009 8:19 AM | Report abuse

I meant to say taitz and that moron w. (AKA george w. bush)

Posted by: davidsawh | October 9, 2009 8:20 AM | Report abuse

Let's do a poll asking if America has become a country of fickle a** haters.

Posted by: Rayden1234 | October 9, 2009 10:40 AM | Report abuse

I am also very disappointed that the WP would profile a woman whose views have been discredited -so what's the point? It was boring for one thing.
I am depressed about all the negativity at a paper supposedly losing readership when profiling innovative,intelligent young and older people who have something to offer would energize us all.

Posted by: kate32 | October 9, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

it is the duty of the responsible media to report on the fabrications and sillyness of anyone in the news and to set the record straight, to report the truth as much as possible.

the post's story on orly taitz fulfills that obligation.

Posted by: jtfloore | October 9, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

I agree that Orly Taitz is newsworthy, and I am deeply opposed to everything she does. It is a risky sort of elitism to look down on the leaders of the birther movement to such an extent that one disregards the danger that these evil cretins represent to the republic.

We ignore the phenomenon of obsessive and potentially violent people confabulating their freakish conspiracy theories, and issuing calls for assassination and the violent overthrow of the government, at our peril. One must take these people seriously, just as one takes seriously the task of draining a malarial swamp.

Orly Taitz is the public face of a very dangerous phenomenon. The mentally diseased rhetoric and hatred she spews has preceded tragic events in our nation's past. Similar rhetoric preceded the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the terrorism of Timothy McVeigh.

It is impossible to dismiss the insane theories of the birthers as irrelevant when the people who listen to the proponents of this madness are often heavily armed and violent people.

While it is preferable not to endure such nonsense without a sense of humor, it is still necessary to take the threat from these people seriously.

Posted by: reynard_muldrake | October 9, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

"While it is preferable not to endure such nonsense without a sense of humor, it is still necessary to take the threat from these people seriously."

You gotta be kidding. The USA has never lacked for nutcases. It's how the Republican Party gets down the road. You can't wet an ocean, and you can't expect to keep your eye on all the odd fish there either. So now I know all about her, WTF am I supposed to do? Write my Congress critter to get all the birthers herded into those non-existent concentrations camps they think are out in the desert?

Nothing serious happens here; it's strictly entertainment and propaganda. Let the FBI and the Secret Service keep an eye out, it's what they're paid to do. As for me, I'll spend more of my time trying to keep an eye on a few of the 535 crazies on Capitol Hill.

Posted by: fzdybel | October 9, 2009 11:26 PM | Report abuse

Don't believe in the camps? does!!!!
Active troops, retired, active and retired cops all think so!

10 orders we will not follow!

Wake upi sheeple!

Posted by: carpentercb2001 | October 10, 2009 5:27 AM | Report abuse

The critics think they are in charge. But why? They "take charge" of everything they encounter. Such a joy to watch.

Bossy little nitwits.

Posted by: gary4books | October 10, 2009 6:20 AM | Report abuse

Interesting that WaPo justifies column-inches for this article on the basis "eight out of ten people are aware of this issue". What is it trying to accomplish, making ten out of ten people familiar with nutball Birther claims? How does this serve either the public interest or the cause of newspaper journalism?

But much more interesting -- and painful --is that the WaPo has an editor (Sydney Trent) who in Mundy's defense wrote the words above:

"[Birther rumors] have not been entirely disspelled."

It's appalling and shameful that a WaPo editor would've misspelled "dispelled".

Posted by: laboo | October 10, 2009 9:32 AM | Report abuse

There is a whole other point being missed here. Liza Mundy wrote a marvelous human interest story (as she usually does). One doesn't have to be concerned about the birther movement to appreciate good writing about a fascinating person.

I give Orly Taitz no credibility whatsoever, but found the piece riveting. Stories about people who seem to live in an alternate reality than the rest of us are often fascinating as human interest. A well-written exploration of who is this person and why is s/he so far removed from the rest of us is always a good read for me.

That is reason enough for it to have been written in my book.

Thank you Liza Mundy for another great piece!

Posted by: pmi1027 | October 11, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

'Ignoring an issue or someone you disagree with doesn't automatically negate their influence...'

What 'issue' is Mr. Trent talking about? Yes, there is a political phenomenon known as the Birther movement; however, all but the most paranoid have accepted the Obama birth certificate. The phony 'debate' that surrounds it reminds one of the caterwauling over evolution.

The Post can accompany a profile of the leading Birther loon with all the fact-checking it wants; the practical effect of such a story still gives a platform to ideas that are demonstrably false, a consequence that should worry a serious paper.

Posted by: tryks | October 13, 2009 9:29 PM | Report abuse

I disagree that she's a lunatic, but even if she were, she could still be right.

Posted by: JakeD | October 14, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

JakeD - Umm, well, no, she probably couldn't be right. Lots of folks have spent lots of time looking for evidence to back her up, and all they keep finding is the plain old boring truth that Obama's story is more-or-less as advertised. Heck, I've got an interesting childhood myself, and haven't seen anything resembling my actual "birth certificate" since I was a child.

All that said, as long as she's one of the more loud and interesting proponents of a viewpoint that has a reasonably large number of adherents, she will, and should, get coverage.

Posted by: bobsewell | October 14, 2009 8:52 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company