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On the day he released copies of his long-form birth certificate, President Barack Obama said he was motivated to provide the document because he wanted to make sure that substantive issues, not sideshows, remained at the top of the news.
Obama said that "two weeks ago, when the Republican House had put forward a budget that will have huge consequences potentially to the country, and when I gave a speech about my budget and how I felt that we needed to invest in education and infrastructure and making sure that we had a strong safety net for our seniors even as we were closing the deficit -- during that entire week the dominant news story wasn’t about these huge, monumental choices that we're going to have to make as a nation. It was about my birth certificate. And that was true on most of the news outlets that were represented here" at this news conference.
Readers suggested that we look into the president’s contention that birth-certificate stories overshadowed stories on the Democratic and Republican budget plans. Other media organizations have also looked into the question.
Fact-checkers and pundits who examined it used data from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonpartisan group that produces a weekly analysis by sampling news coverage in broadcast and cable TV, newspapers, radio and the Internet. PEJ calculates its numbers based on a rigorous methodology and its ongoing study offers some of the most detailed statistics on news coverage available.
For the week the president referenced -- April 11-17 -- PEJ found that the biggest topic of news coverage was the economy, with 39 percent of news coverage. Birth-certificate-related coverage accounted for a bit less than 4 percent, PEJ reported.
So, based on PEJ’s figures, Obama is way off. But just to be sure, we took a second look using a more targeted approach.
We called up transcripts for cable and broadcast television news coverage in the Nexis database and looked at three topics of coverage: stories involving the terms "Obama" and "birth certificate" or "birther"; stories involving "Paul Ryan," the architect of the GOP budget plan, and "Medicare"; and stories involving "Obama" and "budget speech." These are not perfect measurements -- the Nexis database, while large, is not fully comprehensive, and some minor or irrelevant mentions probably crept into our data. In addition, we just looked at television coverage, not radio, print or Internet coverage, as PEJ does. But we think the results still illustrate trends about what the media covered:
For the week of April 11:
Stories mentioning the birth certificate issue: Cable news 66, broadcast news 12, total 78.
Paul Ryan and Medicare: Cable news 63, broadcast news 15, total 78.
Obama’s budget speech: Cable news 135, broadcast news 24, total 159.
So Obama is also wrong by our Nexis count. Coverage of his own speech was twice as common as birth-certificate coverage, while stories about the birth certificate and Ryan’s plan ran neck-and-neck -- hardly a "dominant" edge for the birth certificate issue, as Obama had indicated in his news conference.
Still, we wondered whether the president would have been right if he’d simply said "last week" -- that is, the week of April 18 -- rather than "two weeks ago." It turns out that using those parameters, Obama would have been right. Here are the numbers for that week:
Stories mentioning the birth certificate issue: Cable news 80, broadcast news 12, total 92.
Paul Ryan and Medicare: Cable news 21, broadcast news 4, total 25.
Obama’s budget speech: Cable news 37, broadcast news 3, total 40.
In other words, for the week of April 18, the birth certificate issue was almost four times as prominent as the Ryan plan and more than twice as prominent as Obama’s budget speech.
Indeed, our data shows that cable television attention to the birth certificate issue grew consistently over the course of March and April. Mentions on the three cable news networks -- CNN, Fox and MSNBC -- increased from week to week, from one during the week of March 14, to 16 the next week, then 26, 43, 66 and finally 80 during the week of April 18.
PEJ, for its part, found birth certificate coverage jumping media-wide during the week of April 18. That week, coverage of the 2012 campaign generally jumped dramatically -- especially on cable, where it accounted for 19 percent of airtime studied. Driving that, PEJ found, was coverage of Trump in particular, and within the Trump coverage, birth-certificate issues were a major theme.
"This is a classic case of selective perception," said S. Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. "The birth certificate issue seemed irrelevant and irritating to the president, so he noticed whenever he saw it raised. The budget issue seemed indispensable to him, so he took it for granted whenever he saw it covered. This is a malady that affects politicians and journalists alike -- not to mention humble political scientists."
Obama said that during the week of April 11, "the dominant news story wasn’t about these huge, monumental choices that we're going to have to make as a nation. It was about my birth certificate." He would have been correct if he’d simply referred to coverage one week later. But his precise claim -- and he was clear about the timing -- is not accurate. According to both PEJ’s analysis and our own, the big, substantive issues of the economy and the Democratic and Republican budget plans received quite a bit more coverage than the birth certificate story did during the week Obama referenced. We rate his statement False.
White House, remarks by the president, April 27, 2011
Project for Excellence in Journalism, "PEJ News Coverage Index: April 11-17, 2011"
Project for Excellence in Journalism, "PEJ News Coverage Index: April 18-24, 2011"
Washington Post, "Donald Trump in New Hampshire amid ‘birther’ madness" (Fact Checker column), April 27, 2011
Poynter.org, "Factchecking Obama: Birther controversy was 4% of newshole, not ‘dominant’ story," April 27, 2011
E-mail interview with S. Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, April 28, 2011
E-mail interview with Andrew Tyndall, editor of the Tyndall Report, April 28, 2011
Interview with Mark Jurkowitz, associate director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, April 28, 2011
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