The Conspiracy Candidacy

By Mark Jacob

Beware of people who demand serious public examination of ridiculous conspiracy theories.

The latest example is podcast host Joe Rogan calling on scientist Peter Hotez to debate conspiracy theorist Robert Kennedy Jr. about vaccines. Hotez apparently will not take up the challenge, thank goodness.

The issue reminds me of a mess I got involved with in 2008 —- the birtherism “controversy,” a cynical attempt to suggest Barack Obama was born in Kenya and thus ineligible to become president. I was an editor at the Chicago Tribune when the issue came up. Many of us in the newsroom were skeptical, of course. For one thing, we’d witnessed another disinformation operation in the previous presidential campaign when John Kerry’s decorated service in the Vietnam War was turned into a liability. Or a lie-ability, you might say.

The birtherism speculation seemed similarly bogus. No one had offered any credible evidence that Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii. It was just a rumor. There was even a birth announcement in the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper in 1961 when Obama was born. So you would have to believe that dark forces had conspired 47 years previously to plant a fake birth announcement to cover up for the Kenyan birth of Obama because they thought a half-Black baby with an unusual name would make a great presidential candidate someday. 

But the top editors at the Tribune had been hearing from readers that they wanted to know whether the suspicions were true. So the top editors ordered us to investigate it and write about it. They said the rumor was “out there” and it would be a reader service to fact-check it. Which we did.

We found no indication that Obama was born anywhere but Hawaii, and we published a story headlined, “Rumor calls Obama’s birth certificate fake.” (Yes, the headline could have been better.)

Did the story put the rumor to rest? Of course not. If anything, it gave more oxygen to it. 

Four years later, Donald Trump was tweeting, “An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.” Then in the 2016 presidential race, when birtherism threatened to hurt him more than help him, Trump admitted the rumor wasn’t true and blamed the whole thing on Hillary Clinton.

We need to learn some lessons from birtherism and other right-wing disinformation. Such as realizing that a supposed “debate” like the one suggested by Rogan is a bad idea. There is no chance it would make more people trust vaccines. It would only create a sense of equivalency between scientists and anti-vax nuts.

Legitimate news sources need to avoid sinking to the level of the illegitimate ones. If you’re chasing lies by bad-faith actors all the time, you’re not spending enough time telling your audience the truth.

Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.