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TCA Notes: CNN’s Klein Parses Dobbs-‘Birther’ ‘Flap’

CNN President Jonathan Klein insisted that his network is the only cable news outlet that still does real straightforward reporting. But he then proceeded to parse his words about a recent controversy — host Lou Dobbs’ pursuit of the Barack Obama “Was he born here?” story — in a manner that does little to buttress the network’s credibility.

Addressing what’s left of the TV Critics Assn. tour on Tuesday, Klein was asked about Dobbs’ questioning of Obama’s origins on both his radio program and CNN. According to Klein, there are “two strands” to this story: “Facts” — which have been demonstrated to show that Obama was born in Hawaii, and thus was eligible to be elected president — and “flaps,” that is, the heat being generated by the conspiracy nuts who are convinced otherwise.

“The facts are a settled matter,” Klein said. OK, then why legitimize the story simply because a few nutcases believe it? Because, he said, CNN wants to reflect “a range of points of view.” Throwing his two cents in, anchor John King said that reporters can’t ignore conversations and “don’t get to decide” what’s a legitimate topic and what’s not.

Come again? So if there was a contingent out there arguing that the British won the Revolutionary War, would CNN be duty-bound to cover it because there’s a “flap” about it? That’s one of the most asinine statements I’ve ever heard.

Journalists decide what’s relevant a hundred times a day. Not every “flap” deserves the imprimatur of coverage — unless, of course, you’re cynically piling on a fabricated “controversy” because you fear being left out, what with conservative talkradio hosts discussing it. I frequently hear from lunatics doing this job. That doesn’t mean I write about them.

After the session, Klein told me that he relies on “the best judgments and instincts” of his talent and that the truth of the “birther” movement is “a dead issue at CNN.” If it is, someone should tell Dobbs, who — admittedly more on his radio show, which CNN doesn’t control, than TV — has insisted on flogging the “birther” question by saying that while he personally believes Obama is a U.S. citizen, the president hasn’t released evidence to prove his Hawaiian origins. See the website mediamatters.org for a compilation of Dobbs’ own coy, self-pitying, border-line unhinged pronouncements about the matter and those he perceives as unfairly attacking him. (The Los Angeles Times has a more detailed account of my exchange with Klein.) 

Dobbs can say what he likes, but if CNN truly thinks this is factually “a dead issue,” then it has an obligation to say so when it’s raised in no uncertain terms. Otherwise, it’s helping propagate misinformation by an act of omission.

Such stories are “worth keeping an eye on,” King told the room feebly in defense of his boss.

By that logic, keep an eye out for the British flag being raised over the Capitol. Sure, it might not be true that the British won the Revolutionary War, but if I say it enough times and pretend like I believe it, maybe I can turn it into a “flap.”

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