By David Lichtenstein
Wednesday’s death of Hawaii Health Department Director Loretta Fuddy in a small plane crash off Kalaupapa was a tragic loss. Although I never met her, all reports indicate that she was a dedicated and compassionate public servant.
We are left with final images of Fuddy standing at the Kalawao overlook on Wednesday with DOH colleague Mark Miller. She appears happy and relaxed. And now she’s dead and all we know is that there was “catastrophic engine failure.”
National Transportation Safety Board and FAA investigators will gather information, interview the pilot and passengers and ascertain the cause of the crash. Originally, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said the wreckage, a half-mile northwest of the Kalaupapa peninsula, could not be recovered. Now it seems that the NTSB will attempt to salvage the plane. The NTSB is also awaiting a report from the Maui County coroner to determine a cause of death. An NTSB report on the causes of the crash is expected to be released in 10 to 14 days.
Fuddy’s body was flown off Molokai yesterday. She was honored with a final salute by Molokai police and fire rescue officials before making her final flight back to Honolulu.
This has to be a difficult time for Fuddy’s family and friends. But to add insult to injury, we have to deal with knucklehead “birthers” spewing conspiracy theories before Hawaii has even had a chance to grieve and comprehend this tragedy.
While scrolling through my Molokai news feed I found Donald Trump’s godawful head of hair popping up. The “birthers” — those who believe that President Barrack Obama was not born in the United States despite the mountains of evidence — wasted no time in exploiting this death for their own warped advantage.
Trump, the birther, billionaire blowhard and real estate developer, issued this tweet shortly after the crash: “”How amazing, the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s birth certificate died in plane crash today. All others lived.”
This tweet fueled other ugly tweets and headlines. I found no fewer than 22 legitimate news websites that mention the conspiracy theory, birthers, or the Obama birth certificate somewhere in their headlines. A CNN story headlined, “Hawaii official who confirmed Obama birth certificate dies in crash” had 3,382 comments less than a day after the story was posted. At the Huffington Post, a similar story received 1,038 comments in a matter of hours.
Richard Schuman, president of Makani Kai Air, said the so-called “birthers” have hit a new low. Speaking specifically to Trump, Schuman said of the conspiracy theory, “I kinda took that a little personal that my company or my crew or my people had anything to do with (it) such idiotic nonsense.”
In 2008, then health director Dr. Chiyome Fukino certified the Obama birth certificate was legitimate after inspecting it personally and releasing a short form version. In April 2011, Fuddy again verified it was legitimate and Obama released the long-form version. That, however, failed to placate everyone, which is why Fuddy’s death has added fuel to the conspiracy theory fire.
Too many Internet threads nowadays lead down a bottomless rabbit hole of disinformation. If one birther can spark 10 outraged comments then, in their minds, they have succeeded. It’s a strategy bent on undermining our political system. Not so different than the strategy employed by the Tea Party Republicans during the recent sequestration of the federal government.
Why are we allowing the birthers to take over the news cycle, even if it is for only 15 minutes? Birthers have motivations that range from extreme libertarian views to racist beliefs to simply being susceptible to bad ideas. But why would news websites legitimate this nonsense?
To answer this question, simply follow the money. Media websites make money when they receive traffic, which eventually translates to higher ad rates. The competition of Internet media has made it increasingly exploitive and sensationalistic in a way that mainstream traditional media has never been.
This is why Internet education for our youth is so important. We need to be teaching our kids how to interpret information from the Internet in a responsible way. Parents and teachers need to teach kids the difference between responsible and irresponsible sources. We need to teach youth that there is a dark side of the Internet. It is not something to be feared but it certainly deserves a deeply skeptical approach.