Here’s How Donald Trump Might End Up Winning the Birther Controversy

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I’m heartened to see a few more journalists explicitly acknowledging that Donald Trump lied when he said Hillary Clinton was responsible for starting the birther conspiracy theory. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news:

You all know Lesley Stahl’s story about a tough news segment she did on Ronald Reagan during the 1984 campaign, don’t you? Instead of being mad, the White House press gurus were delighted. “You guys in Televisionland haven’t figured it out, have you?” Dick Darman told her. “When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you.”

I’m afraid we have a similar dynamic working here. The big story should be that Donald Trump pushed the birther lie for years, and when he finally recanted he tossed in another lie about Hillary Clinton starting it. And that’s largely how it’s being reported. But on TV, Trump’s minions are simply shouting over and over that Hillary did too start it. Then a former McClatchy editor who pretty clearly hates Clinton chimes in to say that conservative idée fixe Sid Blumenthal was peddling the birther rumor in 2008. This in turn prompts the Weekly Standard to opine that “it doesn’t seem far fetched that the Clinton campaign played a much bigger role in midwifing birtherism than they or the media would like to admit.” By tomorrow the entire right-wing fever swamp will be salivating over this.

So this is the new version of the Stahl parable: Words matter, but all that matters is that there are two sides yelling at each other. Casual viewers will come away from this thinking not that Donald Trump is a liar, but just vaguely remembering that there was some kind of controversy about whether Hillary Clinton started the birther rumors. What did they ever find out about that, anyway?

And all the people who hazily think Clinton is corrupt, but can’t quite tell you why, will have one more hazy indictment bouncing around their brain. And with that, Trump wins the news cycle again. All it took was six words and an army of supporters willing to defend anything he says no matter how scurrilous. Welcome to 2016.

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Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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