Since he began his trek to the presidency, Barack Obama and his staff have steadfastly knocked down allegations that he’s secretly a terrorist-loving, Christian-hating, capitalism-destroying, secret Kenyan-Muslim agent here to take Americans’ guns. (Or, something along those lines.)
That may not be a completely accurate summary of the popular opposition to Obama’s presidency, but it is a fair wrap of the dominant conspiracy theories that have emerged in conservative media since campaign 2008.
But try telling that to Fox News, which recently played host to a panel of News Corporation employees, two of whom seemingly placed blame on the president for persistent misinformation peddled by the right-wing press.
In the process, all of those participating in the discussion completely neglected Fox News’s numerous contributions to propelling misinformation into America’s national discussion.
The drumbeat of misleading information has reached such a crescendo that recent polls found one in four Americans, and a slim majority of Republicans, actually believe the president is secretly a Muslim. One of the polls, issued by American magazine Newsweek, was enough to prompt an exploration of the issue with a cover-feature published on Sept. 6.
Naturally, a graphic both eye-grabbing and timely was in order. The magazine ultimately settled on this:
“WHAT’S THE POINT?” an infographic rhetorically asked on Friday, as host Gretchen Carlson introduced a Fox News contributor, a New York Post contributor and a Wall Street Journal columnist — all, employed by media mogul Rupert Murdoch — to discuss the magazine’s cover.
Their collective answer: Though most of the rumors are not true, it’s Obama’s fault that some people believe these things and liberals are merely trying to pass it off as a right-wing “conspiracy” to project blame for an impending electoral defeat.
They left out a crucial fact: the Obama-is-a-secret-Muslim rumors, though not born on Fox News, were given their first mainstream airing by opinion-host Sean Hannity in 2008, who produced a documentary-like program carrying allegations by Andy Martin, a perennial candidate for various public offices who was once blocked from filing lawsuits in Illinois due to his persistent, unsubstantiated legal claims.
Mr. Martin, shortly after the 2004 Democratic National Convention, authored a press release claiming then-Senator Obama was a secret Muslim. He had no proof, but it still gained traction online, being up by right-wing blogs via the Free Republic Internet forum.
Though a law school graduate, the Illinois state’s bar association blocked Martin’s certification as an attorney in the 1970s, citing a psychological profile that assessed him as suffering from a “moderately severe character defect manifested by well-documented ideation with a paranoid flavor and a grandiose character,” according to The New York Times.
“It was not Mr. Martin’s first turn on national television,” the Times noted. “The CBS News program ’48 Hours’ in 1993 devoted an hour long program, ‘See You in Court; Civil War, Anthony Martin Clogs Legal System with Frivolous Lawsuits,’ to what it called his prolific filings. (Mr. Martin has also been known as Anthony Martin-Trigona.) He has filed so many lawsuits that a judge barred him from doing so in any federal court without preliminary approval.”
During the Fox News broadcast, Martin also leveled another theory, telling Hannity that the man who would be president also may have been born to a black revolutionary in the 1960s — a man by the name of Frank Marshall Davis.
Davis was a black poet and political activist in the 1920s and 30s who moved to Hawaii in 1948 and wrote for a newspaper which the House Un-American Activities Committee accused of being a Communist front. Right-wing websites have been claiming since last winter that Davis was not only a Communist Party member but also the mentor to Obama in his teen years, whom he refers to in his autobiography as “Frank.”
Martin offered no evidence to support his claim. The allegation at that time appeared to be an effort to bolster Republicans’ strategy to paint then-Senator Obama as sympathetic to terrorists: a line of attack that emerged during the 2008 campaigns, which is still frequented by the president’s critics.
The blame for this extends from Fox News and the Republican leadership, to the peculiar psychology of resentment in public opinion, to the ham-handed political response of the Obama White House. Whatever the cause, if smash-mouth tactics are validated by huge GOP gains in the midterm elections, then Big Lie politics may be with us for good.
In some ways, it has always been with us, going back to the 18th-century calumny of James Callender against John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. More recently, the Rev. Jerry Falwell sponsored a film that falsely accused President Clinton of ordering murders and dealing drugs. What’s changed about politics as a contact sport is the reach of the lies. With the exception of Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic “radio priest” of the 1930s, reactionaries haven’t generally had big audiences. But now the cranks who once could do little more than write ranting letters to the editor on the red ribbons of their typewriters (loaded with exclamation points and in all caps, of course) can spread their venom virally, with the help of right-wing billionaires underwriting their organizations. And while the cable network they watch, Fox News, might not actively promote the idea that the president is a foreign-born Muslim, it does little to knock it down. Fox often covers Obama’s place of birth and religion more as matters of opinion than of fact.
This video is from Fox News, broadcast Friday, Sept. 3, 2010, as snipped by watchdog group Media Matters.