Newsweek has apologized for an op ed that sparked a new wave of false conspiracy theories about Kamala Harris, acknowledging that to make readers the essay “inevitably conveyed the ugly message” that she was “somehow not truly American.”
The essay, written by John Eastman, professor of law at Chapman University, raised the legal question of whether Harris, who was born in Oakland, was really a natural-born citizen, a requirement to hold the office of president or vice president. Her parents, both immigrants, were not naturalized citizens at the time of her birth.
Josh Hammer, opinion editor at Newsweek, wrote, “The op-ed was never intended to spark or to take part in the racist lie of Birtherism, the conspiracy theory aimed at delegitimizing Barack Obama, but we should have recognized the potential, even probability, that that could happen. Readers hold us accountable for all that we publish, as they should; we hold ourselves accountable, too. We entirely failed to anticipate the ways in which the essay would be interpreted, distorted and weaponized.” He wrote that the post would remain on the site.
When it was posted earlier this week, the essay quickly drew an outcry that a new “birther” conspiracy was being advanced in the same way that those on the right trafficked in falsehoods over President Barack Obama’s origins. The falsehood over Harris gained new fuel when President Donald Trump was asked about the Newsweek article on Thursday, and told reporters, “I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements. And, by the way, the lawyer that wrote that piece is a very highly qualified, very talented lawyer. I have no idea if that’s right.”
Trump, who famously advanced the “birther” conspiracy over Obama, then said that “I don’t know about it. I just heard about it. I’ll take a look.”
Reporters pounced on Trump for not quickly dismissing the Harris birther theory, as fact checkers quickly dismissed it as false. The Constitution and Supreme Court precedent hold that a person born on U.S. soil is a citizen at birth.
Meanwhile, on Friday, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner was asked about the president’s remarks in separate interviews with CBS This Morning and CNN.
“I personally have no reason to believe she’s not” a natural born citizen, Kushner told CBS This Morning anchor Anthony Mason, while saying that the birther theory was something that is “out there.” That’s an answer that is hardly unequivocal.
Mason then noted that Harris was born in Oakland, qualifying her as a candidate, and added, “Why didn’t the president take the opportunity to debunk that theory?”
“I have not had a chance to discuss this with him, but again, let his words speak for himself,” Kushner said.
Kushner claimed that Trump said that he knew nothing about the Newsweek story, when in fact the president seemed to give credence to it.
In an interview later in the day, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour wondering what the point was of spreading “disinformation that is contrary to the U.S. Constitution.”
“Look, right now, you’re the one spreading that disinformation,” Kushner said. He later said that it was the media that likes to chase down rabbit holes and try to create controversies when one shouldn’t exist.”
Yet it’s not a media creation. The Trump campaign is actively promoting the idea that Harris’ birthright citizenship is an “open question.” Jenna Ellis, senior campaign adviser, retweeted the Newsweek story and said that Harris “should answer so the American people know for sure she is eligible.”
The trafficking of the birther theory about Harris is unlikely to stop, even after the Newsweek apology. Harris has been subject to other racist attacks, and the president has advanced insults about her name while referring to her as “nasty” and “disrespectful.”
On Friday morning, Trump retweeted posts which referred to Harris a “camel laugh,” days after Fox News host Tucker Carlson bristled when he was called out for mispronouncing her name.
On social media, racist and sexist posts have pervaded since she was selected as Biden’s running mate. Per Recode, Zignal Labs reports that there have been “more than 150,000 instances of people sharing, discussing, or promoting misinformation online related to Harris in the past week.”
A photographer working for the Houston Rockets was fired for posting a meme that referred to the Democratic ticket as “Joe and the hoe.” He later apologized, according to local station KPRC 2, but the meme has been out there.
Other news outlets are being called out for what have been perceived to be racist tropes. The Australian ran an editorial cartoon that showed Biden pleased with his selection of Harris, and then saying, “So I’ll hand you over to this little brown girl while I go for a lie-down.”
The Australian, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has defended the cartoon, contending that it was mocking Biden’s words. But they were in a different context.
When he was introducing Harris on Wednesday, Biden remarked on the historic nature of her candidacy and said, “This morning, all across the nation, little girls woke, especially little black and brown girls who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities, but today, today just maybe they are seeing themselves for the first time in a new way as the stuff of presidents and vice presidents.”
Harris declined to address the attacks coming from Trump and Republicans in an appearance with Biden on Friday. But a group of Democratic allies have been waging an effort to push back against disinformation as sexist attacks on the VP nominee, anticipating that what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016 would continue this cycle. The campaign is dubbed We Have Her Back, and, in advance of the VP announcement, a coalition of advocacy groups even unveiled a guide to the media on reporting on women and people of color in politics.
But it also has presented a bit of a quandary for media outlets — at what point is calling out falsehoods merely amplifying them?
As Trump declined to refute the Harris birther story, longtime Democratic activist Hilary Rosen wrote on Twitter this week, “Attention media: When you repeat stories or talk about #Trump crazy “birtherism” comments about #KamalaHarris, this is what we were talking about when we urged you to check yourselves about what you decide to cover and how you do it. #WeHaveHerBack””