When figures on the right perpetuated birtherism lies about then-Sen. Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election, many in the media were slow to call the false information what it was: a racist attack against someone challenging some people’s concept of what it means to be an American.

But when President Trump — a leader in promoting the birtherism myth against Obama — appeared to fuel similar accusations against Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D.-Calif.) after she was named the presumptive Democratic vice-presidential nominee, the media largely called the president’s words out for what they are.

Trump told reporters Thursday that he heard Harris was not eligible for the presidency.

“I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements,” he said of Harris.

“I have no idea if that’s right,” Trump added. “I would have thought, I would have assumed, that the Democrats would have checked that out before she gets chosen to run for vice president.”

The president appeared to be referring to a Newsweek op-ed published by John Eastman, a Chapman University law professor who ran for the California attorney general seat that Harris won.

He wrote:

“Before we so cavalierly accept Senator Harris’ eligibility for the office of vice president, we should ask her a few questions about the status of her parents at the time of her birth.”

President Trump on Aug. 12 said he was surprised that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden selected Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate. (The Washington Post)

Harris was born in Oakland, Calif., to parents from India and Jamaica who came to the United States to study at the University of California at Berkeley. Part of Eastman’s column argues that the citizenship status of Harris’s parents determines whether she is a “natural born citizen” of America. But most constitutional law professors conclude Harris is a natural-born citizen given that she was born in California.

It’s worth noting that Eastman, a Republican, previously wrote that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was eligible to be president despite the lawmaker’s birth in Canada. Critics of Eastman have concluded that the professor’s take on the respective candidates’ eligibility is shaped not only by his political bias but also racism.

Columnists from this news organization and many others were bold in their pushback of Trump and the climate he created. Karen Tumulty wrote in The Washington Post:

“For those of us in the media, a dilemma arises in dealing with deplorable and racist tactics such as these. Do we ignore them or call them out for what they are? Trump’s demands for Obama’s birth certificate were nonsense, but polls showed that about a quarter of Americans — and nearly half of Republicans — believed the lie that Obama was not born in the United States.”

It appears that the media took the latter approach.

In its lead story, The Post reported:

President Trump, in an echo of his false birtherism claims against President Barack Obama, said questions raised by one of his campaign advisers about the eligibility of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) to run for vice president were “very serious.”
Harris was born in Oakland, Calif., and is, by the laws of the Constitution, a U.S. citizen.

While some outlets referred to birtherism as a theory instead of a lie because it is a conspiracy theory, the direct approach appeared to be consistent with a political climate in which a national reckoning has led to an examining of how the media has covered issues of race in America. In addition to changing policies on whether the identities “Black” and “White” are capitalized, some news organizations are examining whether they allowed blatantly racist ideas to go unchecked and entertained them as legitimate ideas.

In short, the answer is yes. And one could argue that Trump’s ascendancy to the White House is proof of that, given how frequently he promoted birtherism ideas on Fox News before seeking the White House.

The outcome of the 2020 election is still months away. But what appears clear is that any suggestion that a person born in the United States to two parents of color is ineligible to lead this country will not be handled with kid gloves. It will instead be treated as the discriminatory worldview seeking to keep power in only a few people’s hands that it is.