Media complicity in rise of the 'zombie president' conspiracy

Media complicity in rise of the 'zombie president' conspiracy
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A new twist on birtherism is out there — another one of those stories the media knows isn’t true but, eager for ratings and readers, just can’t resist.

Headline this latest fable as “Is Joe BidenJoe BidenAtlanta mayor won't run for reelection South Carolina governor to end pandemic unemployment benefits in June Airplane pollution set to soar with post-pandemic travel boom MORE really in charge of anything, including himself?”

It’s a persistent conspiracy canard that demonstrates how some journalists and Republicans continue to play by Donald TrumpDonald TrumpVeteran accused in alleged border wall scheme faces new charges Arizona Republicans to brush off DOJ concern about election audit FEC drops investigation into Trump hush money payments MORE’s media rules, long after they should have been discarded.


Trump, of course, promoted the original birtherism — the notion that Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCensus results show White House doubling down on failure Gender politics hound GOP in Cheney drama Never underestimate Joe Biden MORE was not a legitimate president because he wasn’t really born in the United States. Trump championed this fringe fabrication for years by abusing an age-old understanding between politicians and the press.

That understanding plays out most clearly on television panel shows, and it goes like this: A senator, say, appears on a program, filled with finely calculated outrage about some topic. Deficits, taxes, or a small malfeasance by a mid-level administration official usually work best. The senator doesn’t really believe his own outrage, and the interviewer knows the senator doesn’t — but everyone goes along.

It’s a bit of political theater benefiting both sides: The senator racks up another 15 minutes of fame; the host gets a slice of good television.

Trump both revealed the coziness of this game and elevated it to an art form. He crusaded for birtherism long after Obama released both his short-form Hawaii birth certificate in 2008 and the long-form, more detailed document in 2011. Trump, intoxicated as always by the spotlight, kept the pseudo-controversy alive. Every troubling step of the way, the media fed him the oxygen he needed, knowing full well it was a lie.

On respected national platforms such as CNN in 2012, ABC News in 2013 and the National Press Club in 2014, Trump continued to justify birtherism. The news world winked, nudged each other and then locked arms with Trump because he was ratings gold.


However, unlike earlier versions of this media game, birtherism was, in the end, no game at all. It was an irrational issue that launched Trump as a national political figure and helped mold parts of his base, particularly those conspiracy-minded elements unaccepting of a Black man with a Muslim-sounding name as their president.

Now the media finds itself knee-deep in another mud pile. Lately, it seems, the best way to win TV face time is to parrot politically motivated allegations that Biden doesn’t control his own presidency — and may not even be in control of his own faculties.

Once again, Trump was the chief proponent. During the campaign, he called Biden “mentally weak” and asserted that he might need “drugs” to prepare for debates. Even after Biden’s victory, some Republicans — having learned from the master — simply kept going. Articles noted GOP contentions that White House chief of staff Ron KlainRon KlainHouse Republicans urge opposition to vaccine patent waiver Pressure builds for Biden to back vaccine patent waivers The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Biden sales pitch heads to Virginia and Louisiana MORE was really “pulling the strings.” When Biden called Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris's uncle discusses COVID-19 surge in India: 'The conditions are pretty bad' Updating the aging infrastructure in Historically Black Colleges and Universities Bowser on Manchin's DC statehood stance: He's 'not right' MOREPresident Harris” during his news conference, that was cited as proof of his decline.

A fresh example cropped up just last week. Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Cornyn is most prolific tweeter in Congress so far in 2021 Schumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel MORE (R-Texas) wrote on Twitter that Biden doesn’t do a lot of press and that his tweets were “unimaginably conventional.” Cornyn asked, “Is he really in charge?”

Cornyn’s tweet was picked up throughout the media universe, often accompanied by heavy journalistic tsk-tsking. But, as with birtherism, real victory comes from continuing to win airtime for the accusations, no matter the finger-wagging.

And, just as with birtherism, the news media know this is phony outrage. From his earliest years on the political stage, reporters have dubbed Biden a “gaffe machine.” More than that, since Biden began speaking openly about his stuttering issue, journalists have better understood the reality behind his sometimes-hesitant public speaking style and persona. While some Democrats also voiced concern about Biden during the primaries, now even centrist Republican senators who’ve met with the president say he’s clearly in control.

None of that stops news organizations from airing charges regarding the president’s aptitude. As media players well understand, this has a cumulative effect. Denials and explanations are brushed aside; the sheer volume of accusations begins to sink in. One result: A poll in February showed 33 percent of respondents are “dissatisfied” with the president’s “mental sharpness.”

Birtherism, the rise of Trump and all that followed should have demonstrated to journalists the dangerous possibilities of this long-running media game. Sometimes you lose control. Sometimes people outside the Beltway actually take it seriously, don’t understand it’s just political theater and run with it in ways you can’t manage.

The Biden “mental health” gambit shows that no one is anxious to explore how to change the game when it drifts into a kind of political vandalism.

But look: The window hasn’t closed. Joe Biden has been president a mere 88 days. It’s not too late to fix things.

And make no mistake, this thing needs fixing.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.