Rick Perry's surprising embrace of birther rhetoric this week produced a head-shaking response among some conservatives who expressed bewilderment at the prominent candidate's turn toward a long-ago debunked conspiracy theory.
That Perry had to spend the two news cycles trying to extricate himself from his birther missteps seemed to confirm the complaints that his comments to Parade reporter and then a CNBC interviewer were misguided and did little to inspire confidence in his candidacy.
Meanwhile, one Republican Hill staffer complained Perry's actions were "a total disgrace," and David Freddoso, author of The Case Against Barack Obama, suggested the Texan's birther turn was "disqualifying for the presidency."
So yes, in some conservative circles Perry's birther rhetoric was denounced. But Republican loyalists this week never called out the real source of their frustration and never condemned the entity most responsible for cultivating a conservative culture where wallowing in birther rhetoric, even by a presidential candidate, seems like a good idea.
Fox News has done more to mainstream birther charges this year than another media outlet. Despite occasional bouts of sanity from hosts like Shep Smith and Greg Jarrett, the balance of birth certificate coverage on Fox has consisted of countless segments where the bogus tale was hyped and treated as legitimate. Together with faux candidate Donald Trump, Fox News this year launched the story wide, and still treats Trump as a reputable political figure even after he was humiliated when the White House released Obama's birther certificate last spring.
Meanwhile, just this month Sean Hannity peddled the false claim Obama "grew up in Kenya." Fox News has pushed the birther story in a way that not only defied common sense, but also did real damage to the Republican Party, which has to reach out to independent voters next year during the presidential campaign.
The Fox News universe represents a hermetically sealed media bubble of Republican activists that GOP candidates desperately want to reach and engage with. It's a right-wing media bubble, and culture, where questioning the president's birth certificate still passes as a pedestrian activity.
And that's what Rick Perry tapped into.
The Republican Party's on-going birther saga perfectly captures the radical elements that have consumed the conservative moment in recent years, and how traditional outposts of leadership have been unwilling to address it and unable to stop it. The fact major players in the Republican Party are still publicly flirting with a thoroughly debunked smear campaign highlights the extremism in play.
Of course you can't be a serious political movement if you cling to debunked conspiracy theories. (The 9/11 Truthers made no serious headway within the progressive movement during the Bush years - though one does currently host a show on Fox Business.) And that's the conundrum the Republican Party and its fervent supporters face. Namely, the conservative movement in America in recent years has completely handed itself over to a media machine fueled by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and an army of ethically challenged bloggers.
Together, they do a stellar job stoking fears and partisan paranoia 24/7, while maintaining a captive audience of Obama-hating consumers. (It's a lucrative business model.) What they fail to do, just as magnificently, is reflect reality. And more damaging for Republicans, they fail to set grown-up parameters for political debate.
Former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough made that point this week on MSNBC, lamenting the behavior of conservative extremists:
SCARBOROUGH: They go so far right so more people will come to their blog sites, so more people listen to their radio shows, so more people will see their cable talk news shows. They don't realize that that becomes the face of the Republican Party in swing states, and this is exactly what happens.
Dismantling the birther allegations should have been the simplest test for the right-wing media to pass and to prove their serious intent during the Obama years. But three years later, they still can't muster a passing grade.
And it's not just Fox News. Recall that in the winter of 2010 blogger Andrew Breitbart lashed out at a birther speaker at a Tea Party convention, denouncing the pursuit as "self-indulgent," "narcissistic," and a losing campaign issue. But so like so many players in the radical right media mob, Breitbart hasn't been able to resist the siren call.
- Andrew Breitbart guest-hosts prominent birther radio program
- Anti-birther Breitbart blurbs book by WND's Klein, who devotes chapter to "Issues of Eligibility"
- Breitbart gives shout-out to Birther website
- Big Journalism: "What If The Birthers Are Right?"
- Breitbart Blogger Compares Birther Story to Iraq War, Watergate, Impeachment
You get the idea. Breitbart and his websites rivaled Fox News in terms of embracing the crazy, debunked birther charade; the same charade Breitbart condemned as "self-indulgent."
And Rush Limbaugh?
- Rush: "If Obama Was Not Born Here, This Is A Huge Scam - One Not Just In Politics, But One Of The Greatest Scams Ever"
- Limbaugh Makes Outrageous Claim That Hawaii Gov. Abercrombie "Can't Find" Obama's Birth Certificate
- Limbaugh: "Just When Everybody Thought The Birther-Movement Had Been Relegated Over There To 'Kookville,' Here Comes Trump!"
- Rush: Obama's A "Man-Child" With "No Qualifications" And According To Trump "No Birth Certificate"
- Mocking Obama's Reaction To Japanese Disaster, Limbaugh Says: "Maybe The Birth Certificate's In Osaka"
That Limbaugh birther sampling is just from this year.
The consequences for the chronic irresponsibility is that among right-wing media consumers, and those pandering to that audience, it's considered "fun" to keep alive the insulting and disrespectful conspiracy theory the President of the United States has concealed his real birthplace, and that he's foreign and not a legitimate American leader. Because that's what's been done this year on Fox News and on Limbaugh's show and on the far-right blogosphere. That's the media culture that's been nurtured.
Offended conservatives should understand that Rick Perry's not the problem. He's just the symptom of the larger Fox News disease.