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When Candy Crowley mentioned "birthers" on CNN one night last week, she was careful to tuck the word between "wackos" and "crazy people." But Lou Dobbs wasn't taking any chances. "Don't say 'birthers,' whatever you do," he implored Crowley. "Not on this broadcast."
Dobbs had reason to be on edge; the CNN host has come under fire from Media Matters, liberal bloggers and rival cable hosts for playing footsie with the conspiracy theorists who insist that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
But when it comes to keeping the "birther" questions front and center, Dobbs can't hold a candle to his mocking competitors at MSNBC.
On the same day that Dobbs was shushing Crowley, MSNBC was covering the "birther" issue on "Hardball," "Countdown," "The Ed Show" and "The Rachel Maddow Show." All four shows had touched on the issue the day before, too, along with dayside hosts David Shuster and Tamron Hall, who devoted about six minutes - an eternity in TV news - to an interview with birther movement leader Dr. Orly Taitz, beamed in by satellite from Tel Aviv.
Not surprisingly, Shuster and Hall smacked down Taitz's arguments, along with the bogus Kenyan birth certificate making the rounds online. But by giving the birthers such a platform - even to knock them off of it - is MSNBC giving them more legitimacy than they deserve?
Bob Steele thinks so. A Poynter Institute scholar for journalism values, Steele said that networks should be wary of giving "considerable and consistent attention to a rumor that has been legitimately debunked." For cable show hosts, Steele said, "to just be bringing it back up, and hashing it over and over, can be very problematic."
Fox News has given relatively little attention to the birthers; Fox host Bill O'Reilly has put down their claims as "bogus" and "patently absurd," although he's also defended Dobbs's right to ask questions.
While Dobbs says he believes that Obama was born in the United States, he's also pushed for more proof - just to assuage the doubters, he says. He has discussed the birther question frequently on his radio show, which CNN does not control. He has covered the question much less often on his CNN show, covering it five times since mid-July.
During the same time period, the birther issue has come up on 29 individual MSNBC shows between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. alone.
John Reiss, executive producer for "Hardball" and executive producer for MSNBC political programming, acknowledged the potential problem in giving too much coverage to conspiracy theories. But he said it was appropriate for Chris Matthews to spend so much time trying to shoot down the rumors.
Reiss said the birther issue has become "part of the American conversation." He pointed to the viral video of a birther woman shouting at Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) during a Delaware town hall, and at a recent Daily Kos/ Research2000 poll in which 58 percent of Republicans expressed doubts over whether Obama was born in the United States.
"At that point," Reiss said, "you realize it's not just a fringe movement."
On the July 21 edition of "Hardball," Matthews confronted Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), who has co-sponsored a bill that would require presidential candidates to submit their birth certificates. Matthews called it a "crazy proposal," and he pressed Campbell to say whether he believes that Obama is a natural-born U.S. citizen. "As far as I know, yes, OK?" Campbell responded.
Two days later, Matthews challenged talk show host G. Gordon Liddy on the issue, presenting evidence-such as a Hawaiian newspaper's notice of Obama's birth and a photocopy of his Hawaiian birth certificate-before rattling off a series of questions: "And, by the way, who do you think is in on this, Gordon? Do you think his wife is in on this? Do you think his mother is in on this? Who is in on the-how many people are in on this conspiracy to make him look like he was born here?"
Reiss said that Matthews was taking the birther theory to the "illogical extreme" in order to debunk the theory, and that "Liddy was not prepared for that line of questioning."
MSNBC president Phil Griffin, in a recent New York Times interview, described the birther conspiracy theory as "racist." Still, it's worthy of MSNBC's attention, he said, because "there's a segment of our population that believes this and keeps bringing it up."
"We did not do what some other outlets did," Reiss said, which was to say, "'I don't really believe he wasn't American born, but why doesn't he produce his birth certificate?'"
Although Reiss didn't name names, he was clearly referring to CNN.
The charge is half fair. While Dobbs has continued to raise the birthplace rumors, CNN's Rick Sanchez and Kitty Pilgrim have debunked them - ironically, while filling in on Dobbs's show when he was off.
More than a year ago, staff from Annenberg's FactCheck.org "touched, examined and photographed" Obama's "original birth certificate," according to the FactCheck.org site.
"It's case closed," said Brooks Jackson, FactCheck's director.
Jackson is a former investigative reporter for CNN, and he had harsh words for his old network.
"I think it's to CNN's discredit that they've allowed this to be treated as a serious subject by Dobbs or anyone else," Jackson said. "For anyone who calls themselves a journalist to imply there's an open question here, is irresponsible."
"To reopen it now is pure sensationalism, chasing after ratings," Brooks added. "It's not journalism, it's show business. It's not even cable news -- it's cable talk."
CNN declined to comment for this story -- and declined an interview request for Dobbs.
Media Matters, the liberal watchdog group, has been closely following birther claims made on the cable networks and talk radio shows, and it has launched an ad campaign aimed at Dobbs The group tried buying time on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, but several local cable operators turned it down when it came to the latter network.
"CNN retains the right to object to any ad run by the cable operator on our network whose purpose is to attack CNN or our employees," a spokesperson told POLITICO last week.
Media Matters President Eric Burns accuses CNN of strong-arming local cable operators, and he blames Dobbs for having "really mainstreamed" the birther theory.
But unlike some, he thinks it's fine for the networks to keep shining a light on the birthers - so long as they're doing it to debunk their arguments.
"I think it becomes a responsibility of news organization to go out there and talk about this stuff and debunk it," Burns said. He added: "To the extent that MSNBC and Fox, and other folks at CNN, are discussing this in the context that it's false, it's entirely appropriate at this point."
But even Reiss acknowledged that all the debunking may not have much of an effect.
"I would love to tell you that after a week or so of doing this story, we put it to rest," Reiss said. Looking back, he added, "I don't think it changed anyone's mind at all."
Zach Abrahamson contributed to this report.