July 26, 2009Through the looking glass on YouTube
By NICOLE GAUDIANO and DAN SHORTRIDGE
The News Journal
When a woman in a red shirt stood up in a Georgetown senior center on June 30 and began yelling at U.S. Rep. Mike Castle about President Barack Obama's birth certificate, her rant was caught on video and has since become a TV and Internet sensation.
Clips from it have been featured worldwide -- on CNN, MSNBC, the Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh's radio talk show -- and catapulted the woman into the unlikely role as a spokeswoman for the "birther" movement, whose members question whether Obama is a native-born American and eligible to serve as president.
While there are some die-hard conservatives who truly believe Obama was born in Kenya and not Hawaii, the impact of the Georgetown video shows how public perceptions can be easily distorted in the digital age, said Josh Dyck, an assistant professor of American politics at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
"The existence of the Internet and the existence of cable news allow things like this to become sort of bigger than they are, quickly," he said. "There is this very strong anti-Obama sentiment that exists among conservatives in this country, and so anything that can be latched onto sort of manifests."
The star of the show -- known as "Crazy Eileen"
to callers of a Sussex County talk radio station -- has gone into seclusion, declining interviews and avoiding publicity, even as previous statements by her have emerged referring to Obama as "the antichrist" and speaking of aliens and angels.http://www.youtube.com/v/9V1nmn2zRMc&hl=en&fs=1&
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"She doesn't want to be another 'Joe the Plumber' I think," said Dan Gaffney, program director and morning host at WGMD 92.7 FM.
Some who initially dismissed the claim about where Obama was born as a laughable political sideshow now wonder whether it's gotten out of control.
Mainstream Republicans who want the issue to go away are having a tough time stamping it out as the birthers resurface with assists from Limbaugh and CNN's Lou Dobbs.
Theories that Obama was born abroad abounded during the presidential campaign, even after an official Hawaii birth certificate was produced, along with August 1961 birth notices from two Honolulu newspapers. Numerous lawsuits and emergency appeals were lodged challenging Obama's eligibility to be president. All were rebuffed.
Allegations that Obama is not a U.S. citizen have been refuted by state officials in Hawaii, who say they've checked health department records and verified that Obama was born there Aug. 4, 1961.
The gunman who killed a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in June was a birther, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization which tracks hate groups and extremist activity. The center Friday called for Dobbs' dismissal from CNN for his role in promoting the movement.
"This conspiracy theory was concocted by an anti-Semite and circulated by racist extremists who cannot accept the fact that a black man has been elected president," SPLC President J. Richard Cohen wrote in an e-mail to supporters.
But the point of view has persisted from the fall campaign through the first six months of the Obama administration. The national focus on birthers coincides with the president's approval ratings slipping below 50 percent for the first time last week.
Lindsay Hoffman, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Delaware, said the rapid spread of information online particularly lends itself to an echo chamber-like phenomenon.
"It becomes sort of a spiral," she said. "This information is passed along and passed along and passed along, and it reaches a culmination when you get traditional media coverage."
She and Dyck suggested that the recent attention on the birth certificate issue will ultimately amount to a flash in the pan.
"Do you really think that anything is going to come of this?" he asked. "No. It's a minor thing. No one cares. ... The people who care about this are people who don't like Obama and want to see him go down."
"These things get much more attention than they maybe would have before we had all this new media, [but] their lifespans are also shorter," she said. "I think this is a story for a few days, but then it sort of is back in the background."
The video of the Castle meeting, taken by someone in the audience, shows the woman holding a small American flag and what she said was her birth certificate, asking why people are ignoring Obama's birth. She charged that Obama is a citizen of Kenya, not the United States.
Castle, a Republican, was booed at the meeting while reiterating that Obama is a U.S. citizen.
The crowd applauded and cheered as the woman yelled, "I don't want this flag to change! I want my country back!"
The Constitution states that a person must be a "natural-born citizen" to be eligible for the presidency. The birthers contend that Obama's Hawaiian birth certificate is a fake, and many say he was actually born in Kenya, his father's homeland.
Limbaugh, the nationally syndicated radio talk show host, joked that Obama and God have something in common -- the lack of a birth certificate. Dobbs has broached the issue several times, saying at one point, "The questions won't go away."
And 10 Republican members of Congress have co-sponsored a bill that would require future presidential candidates to provide a copy of their original birth certificate.
Little is known about the woman who triggered the recent firestorm. Gaffney, the WGMD morning host, said she is believed to be from the Millsboro area.
According to another WGMD host, Jared Morris, she has been banned from calling the station -- known for its conservative leanings and hosts -- on several occasions.
In a call from a January show, on New Year's predictions, the woman discusses aliens, angels and the end of life on Earth, according to an audio clip Morris posted on YouTube this week.
In a videotaped introduction, Morris said the woman featured on the YouTube video from the meeting was a regular caller to his program.
"I want you guys to know exactly who you were cheering," Morris said in the clip.
She repeatedly has called Obama "the antichrist" on the airwaves, and "her phone calls have turned to faxes and threats," according to Morris.
"I have actually talked to an angel who came down in human form," she said during the Jan. 1 show. "We will have alien contact in October of this year, in the southwestern USA."
One prediction may seem ironic in light of the anger expressed in her diatribe toward Castle: "There will be peace among men and negativity will end," she told Morris.
But the tinges of extremism associated with the birther movement don't mean that everyone in the crowd felt the same way.
There has been a general increase of discontent with Castle among conservatives, said Eric Bodenweiser of Georgetown, a conservative activist who attended the meeting.
Bodenweiser, who is a leader of the Sussex County Community Organized Regiment, a new group that has gained strength in recent months, said the crowd got very worked up throughout the forum.
"I was waiting for the rotten eggs and tomatoes to come out -- it was ugly," he said. "People have gotten themselves worked up into a frenzy with the way things are going with our country."
He described Castle as beating around the bush on a variety of questions, on cap-and-trade, financial bailouts and the economic stimulus package.
"I've never been in a room where so many people had their hands up," Bodenweiser said. "The more he answered, the more, let's say, antagonistic it got."
The video of the exchange has gotten more than 600,000 hits on YouTube, the online video-sharing Web site.
"I'm fascinated by watching how viral it has become," said Gaffney, the talk show host.
He suggested the national press has used the video as a way of backing into coverage of the birthers.
It is "kind of a back-handed excuse to get it out there a little bit without looking crazy," he said. "They can say, 'Hey, these people are crazy.'"