Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Not Worth The Paper It’s Not Printed On

We live in a country that was theoretically founded, in part, on the idea that you can say or write what you want and not go to jail for it. At least, unless your speech or writing slanders or libels or physically endangers someone.

Most of the time this is a great thing. So much better than what life must be like, in places where you can go to jail if someone in power suspects you of merely thinking something that doesn’t please them.

In our country you can hold any old wacko belief you like, within limits. Those limits have to do with personal safety and the avoidance of wrongful accusation. Our Constitution provides for some wonderful freedoms, where those freedoms are not abused.

And the example of free speech that has gotten me writing … has nothing to do with the personal safety of anyone. It may not be something that in common-sensical circles would even be considered worth losing sleep over, or spilling any ink about. That example is a news item — and as a former journalism major, I think calling it a news item is a danged stretch – which comes from the latest addition to the American political landscape, one Mr. Donald Trump.

The idea is this: Mr. Trump suspects Mr. Obama wasn’t a good enough student to deserve to be welcomed into Ivy League schools, and – outrage! – somehow he did. (Never mind that Ivy League schools’ admissions departments have demonstrated a knack for their job. Separating the wheat from the chaff, and all that.)

For the past few weeks, Mr. Trump has been aided and abetted by members of the media who are afraid to think that by ignoring his blather, they’d be somehow missing something that really was important. He has been busy filling the airwaves and Internet and newspaper pages with his doubts about the American citizenship of one Mr. Barack Obama. Mr. Obama happens to be the President of the United States at this time.

Set aside, for the moment, the fact that the proper paperwork that confirms Mr. Obama’s status as a natural-born citizen of the United States has been displayed publicly and confirmed publicly by the state in which he was born (as well as at least one Internet fact-checking organization).

Set aside, for the moment, the fact that to this correspondent’s knowledge, no one created a cottage industry out of questioning Mr. Obama’s citizenship while he was running for election to the Illinois seat in the United States Senate.

Set aside, for the moment, the undeniable truth that there are people out there in the political world and beyond who have a desperate need to say any old thing they possibly can to take Mr. Obama down a peg or two or three – and they choose not to bother with critiquing his policies. That would require doing some work.

Free speech doesn’t have to be correct; it can be demonstrably fact-challenged, mistaken, outright wrong or morally repugnant, and it’s still protected. Proof of this is that the Westboro Baptist Church people are still out there, setting up protests near the funerals of fallen US military personnel. It’s not pretty; but the Constitution says what it says for a reason.

None of Mr. Trump’s frankly grotesque self-expression constitutes, strictly speaking, a free speech issue. It may be a question of “could we please spend our time on issues that are actually important or even existent?”, but free speech protects the foolish as well as the wise, or the wiseacres.

No, this time Mr. Trump has expanded his suspicion of the President’s qualifications to include the question of whether Mr. Obama deserved to be a member of the Columbia University or Harvard University student bodies, based on his qualifications as a student.

And again, the First Amendment protects this. We as citizens or journalists can question anything! Between 2000 and 2008, we damn well should have done more questioning. And, it’s always helpful for the questioner to have a little, oh, I don’t know, evidence to back his or her assertions up. But the Constitution does not require this.

As theoretically intelligent persons, though – as perceptive consumers of the mass media – we need to be a little more detail-oriented when we consider the assertions of public figures. Consider a few quotes from an Associated Press article, posted online by many newspapers, that sprang from Monday’s interview with Mr. Trump:

“Real estate mogul Donald Trump suggested in an interview Monday that President Barack Obama had been a poor student who did not deserve to be admitted to the Ivy League universities he attended. Trump, who is mulling a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, offered no proof for his claim but said he would continue to press the matter as he has [pressed as an issue] the legitimacy of the president’s birth certificate.”

“Offered no proof for his claim.” In a court of law or in my sister’s third-grade classroom, that doesn’t cut it. Like my sixth-grade math teacher, Ms. Natale, said to us: “show your work.” In the American media marketplace though, apparently that’s not as much of a concern.

“’I heard he was a terrible student, terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?’ Trump said.”

From whom did Mr. Trump hear that? Whether or not I care to challenge that assertion, the larger question is, why does Mr. Trump get to make unattributed assertions like that? And why don’t more people challenge him, and people and organizations like him?

Beth Fouhy wrote the article for the Associated Press. To her credit, she did more research on Mr. Obama than Mr. Trump probably bothered to, or cared to. (Or perhaps he felt that doing his homework would hurt his cause. And Mr. Trump thinks we want THAT in the Oval Office in 2012?)

“Obama graduated from Columbia University in New York in 1983 with a degree in political science after transferring from Occidental College in California,” Fouhy writes. “He went on to Harvard Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude [in] 1991 and was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.” Make of that what you will, but I think it likely that one would have to be a fairly competent student in order to achieve these accomplishments. (That statement could be seen as unattributed conjecture, but I prefer to think of it as analysis.)

“Obama’s 2008 campaign did not release his college transcripts,” Fouhy’s article continues. “Trump told the AP that Obama’s refusal to release his college grades were part of a pattern of concealing information about himself.” And, Trump is further quoted, “’We don’t know a thing about this guy [Obama]. There are a lot of questions that are unanswered about our president.’”  Later in her article, Fouhy notes that Trump “declined to disclose his net worth, saying he’ll do so if he decides to run.” Kettle? Pot on line three again.

When I read the headline of this article, “Donald Trump: Barack Obama wasn’t qualified for Ivy League”, I decided to beat back my initial response, which was: “…Seriously?”

Then I read the rest of the article, and my response continued to be, “…Seriously?”

Let me get this straight: our economy is in trouble; we’re still sending our military personnel into harm’s way for reasons that seem murky at best; gas prices are going up and up and up; our own citizens and those of nations around the world are trying to survive myriad natural disasters; despots are oppressing their own people, often violently. And all Mr. Trump can come up with as he seems to prepare people for his run for the Presidency is a continuation of the now-disproven “birther” conspiracy theory and an unresearched attack on the educational background of the current president?

[At this point, a little tiny part of me would love to see Donald Trump run for president so that I can watch as Barack Obama intellectually eviscerates him during a televised debate. It would be a little like watching the New York Yankees play the East Overshoe Middle School Fightin’ Mascots. Identifiable on the surface as two entities involved in the same activity; but not nearly a fair fight.]

According to Fouhy’s article, “Katie Hogan, a spokeswoman for Obama’s re-election campaign, declined to comment.” Ms. Hogan would represent the grownup in the room.

There are reasons why Mr. Trump might pursue these trains of thought (I can’t even bring myself to call them lines of reasoning). One reason might be that in Trump’s world, whatever he says is law, regardless of whether it makes any sense or not, and he’s gotten used to everyone around him agreeing with him, or else “they’re fired”. One reason certainly could be that Mr. Trump may not have policy positions that he can run up the flagpole in order to help him compete with Mr. Obama in the eyes of the majority of the American electorate; so he’s gotta find something to throw at the incumbent.

That “something to throw”, not just from Mr. Trump but also from members of Congress, members of the alleged Tea Party Movement, members of the cable-TV-news-pundit and talk-radio-blowhard and blogospherical worlds … those “somethings to throw” at Mr. Obama have nothing to do with Mr. Obama’s policies, or whether he’s made good on his campaign promises, or anything to do with what kind of job he’s doing. They have everything to do with the fact that all these particular people can’t handle the idea that Mr. Obama sits in the Oval Office. My apologies, but this is truth of it: as much progress as has been made on this front, there are still plenty of people, with plenty big mouths and plenty of money to publicize themselves, who can’t handle the fact that a President of the United States … ummm … doesn’t look like they do.

It’s that straightforward. There is a body of evidence out there that, taken as a whole, cannot possibly lead an objective observer to any other conclusion. There are people in the United States who can’t handle the thought that a person who doesn’t look like Washington or Lincoln or Roosevelt or Eisenhower or Clinton or Bush is sitting in the Oval Office, legitimately elected by a majority of American voters. For every major change, there is pushback before the change settles in and is fully accepted. And most of the pushback being leveled against Mr. Obama (or whatever person had been the first US President from a “minority group”) and his family is childish, plain and simple – on the order of the playground “oh yeah?”. (“Mrs. Obama wears Army boots.”) And most of it is probably not worth giving the kind of air time that a Donald Trump seems to demand.

And now I’ve probably spent time on all this that I could have utilized for more productive purposes. I’ve been victimized as well, although I’m not going to blame Mt. Trump. I’ll blame myself for paying attention to his silliness.

This most recent of Mr. Trump’s unattributed and probably unfounded assertions isn’t news. It’s blather. I’d like to hope we all deserve better than someone like him. And we absolutely need incisive, “hold-his-feet-to-the-fire” journalism from those who are forced by the currently accepted rules of celebrity to cover the every errant thought of people like him.

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April 26, 2011 - Posted by | celebrity, civil rights, Famous Persons, government, Internet, journalism, media, news, politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Free speech often protects blowhards and idiots. Seriously Donald, seriously? I love the raucous nature of the American experience, but this guy was born on third base and thought he hit a triple (Romney was there with him and had the same thought). The good news is that as of yet the Republicans don’t have a candidate that can pass a laugh test for 2012.

    Comment by joe mccoy | April 26, 2011 | Reply


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