Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Question-beggar's banquet

When the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, don't be surprised if he (or she) writes not if you won or lost, but where you played the Birf Certificate story. Might we suggest that for Thursday's paper, a two-graf brief inside would be on the upper side of appropriate?

One thing you'd be doing, of course, is indicating that you can handle the sort of basic calculation that goes into "news judgment." And one of the best fallback questions you can ask when you're learning how to write heds is: What makes today different from yesterday? When the earth-shattering release of the birf certificate is put in those terms, the answer is: Little if anything.

This is apparently a copy of the document whose existence is certified by the document that's been in the record for -- what, three years now? If you have a semblance of a clue, you had the basic pattern figured out already. If you don't, you're off somewhere arguing about how today's document COULD have been Photoshopped, or noting that it's OUT OF SEQUENCE with another certificate issued for someone born the FOLLOWING DAY, or wondering why it says AFRICAN instead of "Negro," and otherwise stumbling over the CAPS LOCK key. Because that's how you roll.

I don't think the birf certificate has ever really been the issue -- not even when it was pushed onto the public agenda over the past few weeks by the sort of buffoonery that sometimes takes center stage in the American political process. It's been the most tangible chunk of a large collective fantasy whose core, admit it or not, is That Colored Fella Is Not Like Us. Here to sum it up for you is that paragon of journalism ethics, Sarah Palin:

 I think the media is loving this because they want to make birthers, as they call people who are just curious about the President of the United States and his background and his associations and his consistency with what he says today versus what he said in both the memoirs that he wrote or Bill Ayers or whomever wrote them -- the media is loving the fact that some curious Americans are actually asking the questions. And they're trying to make those curious Americans sound kind of crazy. So the media is loving this issue and they're perpetuating the issue, trying to make it sound really worse than it is.

What the heck is wrong with asking the President of the United States to disclose what his college thesis was, what some of the Harvard Law Review papers were that he wrote? I don't care about his grades. I don't care if he was a C student. You know, more power to the C student. What I care about is what goes into his thinking today? What is his foundation from his background? A lot of that could be reflected in the writings that he produced as a college and a grad student.

I'm going to go out on a limb here. I'm going to bet that Sarah Palin hasn't disclosed what her "college thesis" was because she didn't have one. Not because she was a mediocre transfer student on the five-year plan, but because journalism programs don't tend to require a "college thesis." I don't know how many of her friends made law review, but it'd be fun to set her a reporting assignment -- say, figure out the average number of "law review papers" per member of the editorial staff -- and see what she comes back with.

You've probably seen several incarnations of the basic theme: There's so much we don't know! What does he have to hide? I'd be happy to release my birth certificate! They all come down to a kind of question-begging. There comes a point at which the appropriate journalistic answer to "Why haven't we seen his college thesis?" isn't "whoa, let's ask" but "who says there's a missing 'college thesis' in the first place?"

Indeed, you might have noticed these assertions getting sillier as the years have worn on: "You just try getting a passport with a 'certificate of live birth'! Just try!" Actually, it's pretty easy. That's the document I've been using all along* -- the photocopy my mom, cunningly posing as a perky young Army wife, managed to pilfer from the city of Washington several months after the event in question.

It's a little annoying that the journalism bizness hasn't reached critical mass on this fairly self-evident issue yet. Perhaps we can start fixing that now. It's appropriate to laugh these people off the stage, out of the room, away from the public sphere altogether. You don't have to take them seriously. Two grafs inside sounds like a good start.

* OMG I'm a Kenyan!!1!!1!



Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Sigh. The WaPo put it on the front page (under the fold, but still) and then gave it two whole pages inside.

Of course, they also have more than 2500 comments, so I guess they know their audience. (Damn I wish the Baltimore Sun carrier could manage to get the paper to me by 6 am...)

12:49 PM, April 28, 2011  

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