Did White House use birth certificate to distract press?

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
Font Size:

When he released his long-form birth certificate on Wednesday morning, President Barack Obama gave into pressure put on him by potential 2012 presidential candidate Donald Trump,  seemingly playing right into the real estate mogul’s hand by addressing an issue he had so steadfastly avoided. But, indirectly, Obama is benefiting from giving in to Trump as the mainstream media’s focus isn’t on the major storylines that would usually dominate the headlines, like the Federal Reserve press conference, unfavorable economic numbers and all-time-lows for Obama in polling results.

Obama’s rapid shift on the issue raises some questions. Even the day before the White House released the birth certificate, press secretary Jay Carney ripped CNN’s Ed Henry for asking about it. In his briefing room appearance on Wednesday, though, Obama said he’d made the decision to release his long-form birth certificate a couple weeks before.

Did Carney know about the president’s plan? If not, why not? If so, why disparage a reporter for sullying the briefing room by asking a question about the birth certificate one day and the next day have the president give a press conference in the briefing room to talk about the very same birth certificate the reporter was supposedly sullying by bringing up?

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank questioned Obama’s swift jump into the birther story, too, and points out that NBC opted to go live with the president’s birth certificate statements only because it had previously expected a national security announcement.

“Instead, Obama decided to draw the nation’s attention to the conspiracy theory suggesting that he was not born in America,” Milbank wrote. “He was stooping to address this oft-disproved canard, he said, because the media had turned it into the nation’s No. 1 news story.”

Former deputy White House press secretary Scott Stanzel told The Daily Caller that the document’s release and Obama’s appearance in the White House briefing room to talk about it only elevated the story. His appearance on Oprah shortly thereafter made the story even bigger, and then he joked about the conspiracy theory at 2012 campaign fundraisers Wednesday night.

“President Obama said he’d made this decision a couple weeks ago,” Stanzel said. “I don’t understand why it takes two weeks to produce the document. In my view, the White House generally doesn’t try to release news in a haphazard way. Having the president of the United States show up in the press briefing room like this, they had to know it would be front page news.”

New York Times pollster Nate Silver said, too, that the White House probably isn’t complaining about the boom in birther coverage since it has shielded Obama from other, more important issues. “Lots of mediocre polling and economic numbers for Obama today,” Silver tweeted. “I don’t think he’d protest if media devoted another 72 hrs to birther crap.”

If that was the White House strategy, it appears to be working. A quick sweep of the front-page headlines of major U.S. newspapers Thursday revealed little coverage of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s first-ever press conference. Also, the birth certificate release topped the Fed presser in many newspapers that gave front-page attention to it.

The only major national newspaper that didn’t run a front-page story about Obama’s long-form birth certificate release on Thursday morning was the Wall Street Journal.

Former George W. Bush press secretary Dana Perino, though, said she doesn’t think the Obama White House used the birth certificate release as a form of misdirection.

“I suppose that they felt it had been a benefit to have this ‘crazy talk’ out there but then they must have felt the tide was turning and decided to try to put a stop to it all,” Perino said in an e-mail to TheDC.

Though the president attacked the media for covering the birth certificate story to an extreme, reports from the Poynter Institute and Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism show that news coverage of Trump and birtherism didn’t match the extent of coverage given to the economy or unrest in the Middle East.