The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


January 2, 2011

Misinformation detrimental to marketplace of ideas

— Last month, Lt. Col. Terry Lakin was dismissed from the Army and sentenced to six months in a military prison because he refused to obey an order to deploy to Afghanistan. The Army doctor, who had served our country for 18 years, pleaded guilty at his court-martial hearing at Fort Meade outside of Baltimore.

Lakin is a member of the “birther” movement. Birthers question whether President Obama was born in the United States. 

In a YouTube video, Lakin said he disobeyed orders to deploy to Afghanistan for a second tour because “I believe all servicemen and servicewomen and the American people deserve the truth about President Obama’s constitutional eligibility to the office of the presidency and the commander in chief. 

“If he is ineligible, then my order and indeed all orders are illegal, because all orders have the origin with the commander in chief as handed down through the chain of command.”

In June 2008, Hawaii released a copy of the president’s birth certificate, which is officially termed a “certificate of live birth” in that state.

Various third parties have reviewed and confirmed the authenticity of this certificate, which indicates that Obama was born in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 1961. 

The Honolulu Advertiser and Star Bulletin newspapers each published announcements of Obama’s birth at the time.

Yet doubts regarding the president’s U.S. citizenship continue to persist. 

A CNN Opinion Research Poll conducted in July 2010 and released on Aug. 4 – Obama’s 49th birthday – polled 1,018 adult Americans. 

Among those polled, 16 percent said Obama probably was born in another country, and 11 percent said he was definitely born outside the U.S.

Given the evidence to the contrary, why do Lakin, members of the birther movement and 27 percent of the respondents to CNN’s poll continue to question whether Obama is an American citizen? 

In July of 2009, when the issue was reaching a crescendo nationally, New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis suggested that “many political and media leaders are deliberately fanning the flames of ignorance and fear.”

Among the media leaders fanning these flames is radio commentator Rush Limbaugh. 

He told his audience on June 10, 2009, that Obama and God have one thing in common – neither have birth certificates.

Later that month, Limbaugh said that “Barack Obama has yet to have to prove he’s a citizen. All he’d have to do is show a birth certificate.” 

Then on Aug. 3 of last year, Limbaugh lamented that “tomorrow is Obama’s birthday, not that we’ve seen any proof of that ... What? We haven’t seen any proof of that! They tell us Aug. 4 is the birthday. We haven’t seen any proof of that. Sorry, it is what it is.”

Several months ago, it was reported that Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the Taliban’s top leaders, was meeting with Afghan officials to discuss a possible end to the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

It turned out that an Afghan man had posed as Mansour at these meetings. 

While discussing this story on his program last month, Limbaugh told his listeners the Mansour impostor “got into the equivalent of the White House in Afghanistan. Did they not ask this guy for some kind of identification?

“They clearly didn’t. They clearly didn’t ask this guy for his birth certificate. How in the world could they trust in a leader and even give money to somebody who has not been properly vetted?

“Well, because it happened here in the United States. We have an impostor for all intents and purposes serving in the White House.”

Talkers Magazine, the leading trade publication serving the U.S. talk radio industry, annually ranks the broadcasters with the nation’s largest listening audiences. In the spring of 2010, Limbaugh topped Talkers’ list with an audience estimated at 15 million. This is the largest number of listeners for a radio program since the advent of television.

Popular radio and television commentator Sean Hannity, who ranks second behind Limbaugh on Talkers’ list with approximately 14 million listeners to his daily radio program, also has perpetuated the birther controversy. 

On Aug. 11, 2009, he told his audience that “this whole birther thing is another huge distraction to try and portray conservatives as a bunch of right-wing, nut-job kooks when people, all they wanted to do was say ‘where’s the birth certificate?’ ”

On Dec. 8, 2009, Hannity asked a caller to his show: “In light of the fact of where (Obama’s) father came from, let’s just make sure that this is a legitimate birth certificate.” 

Other radio and TV commentators have also challenged the authenticity of the president’s birth certificate, despite the findings of nonpartisan reviewers who have confirmed its accuracy.

Limbaugh and Hannity are misinforming their listeners on this issue. This is especially troublesome given their influential positions in shaping the nation’s political discourse.

In a 1999 study examining the implications of a misinformed electorate, C. Richard Hofstetter, David Barker, James Smith, Gina Zari, Thomas Ingrassia and Carolyn Huie Hofstetter distinguish between informed, uninformed and misinformed citizens. 

Being misinformed, or holding a position of “erroneous understanding,” argue the authors, differs significantly from being uninformed, or “lacking understanding.”

Misinformed members of society may hold erroneous understanding of issues with confidence. A misinformed society poses a much more serious threat to the health and vitality of the marketplace of ideas than an electorate which is uninformed. 

While the uninformed often turn to opinion leaders among their peers to help them arrive at decisions regarding an issue, misinformed citizens who feel strongly about their beliefs often share those beliefs with others.

Citizens who reach a decision based on misinformation not only fail to arrive at an accurate understanding of an issue, but they often persuade others to arrive at a similar incorrect conclusion.

I enjoy listening to Limbaugh and Hannity’s radio programs. Both are very good at what they do, as well as entertaining – there’s a reason they command a combined audience of roughly 29 million listeners. 

Their strong opinions on a range of issues are one of the primary reasons their programs enjoy success.

But when expressing opinion crosses the line into perpetuating misinformation, they do a disservice to their listeners. 

At a time when we should be having a national conversation on a range of important issues, including many of the issues Limbaugh and Hannity regularly address, it is important not to stoke the flames of a nonissue for political and commercial gain.

Pat Farabaugh is a journalism professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He recently published a book on the talk radio industry titled “Carl McIntire’s Crusade Against the Fairness Doctrine.”  Farabaugh resides in Ebensburg. 


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