This is not a post about Barack Obama's girlfriends. Politico did that last week, and quite badly. What it is, is a post asking why Howard Kurtz, host of a show called "Reliable Sources," gave Politico's reporter a complete pass on his "gotcha" post that got righties riled, but failed to pass the truth test.
Last Wednesday, Dylan Byers wrote what can only be characterized as a junky gotcha piece for Politico. It focused on David Mariniss' upcoming biography on President Obama. Rather than placing his focus on Obama's milestones, Maraniss has focused on his relationships. Vanity Fair published a bit of a provocative (not really) excerpt concerning one of Obama's college girlfriends.
Byers seized on the interview to declare that Obama "now admits to Maraniss that the character was a composite." Subtext: Obama lied to readers of his memoir. And sure enough, the right wing blogosphere jumped right on that subtext, with Drudge leading the way in characteristic 108-point madness. The Drudge headline read "Obama Admits Fabricating Character in Memoir." And so began the "composite girlfriend" meme of last week, much to wingers' delight.
Byers was reluctant to back down from his indictment, and initially only corrected the post to say the second edition of the book had a statement about composite characters. However, he was incorrect about that too, and on Friday an update was added to the post by the editors acknowledging that all editions of the book began with that statement, no lies were told, and the "incorrect information had been removed from the article."
But this is Politico, after all. Byers came back the very same day as the correction with a brand-spanking new article entitled "The dangerous new Obama book." Byers contends it has everyone in the White House quaking in their boots because, well, it will show how Barack Obama "fashioned himself" for the Presidency.
Byers used that disingenuously entitled article to make the case for his own quest for "gotcha journalism."
First, we're told this:
Maraniss’s basic approach hasn’t changed over the years, but the world around him has accelerated — so it remains to be seen how his work will be received in an overheated, overhyped election year.
“In the current Internet-driven craziness in which we live, I fret that, for now, the power of the fleetingly salacious will upend all,” said James Warren, former managing editor and Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune and Maraniss friend who helped edit the book.
“Still, if a lot of prospective voters, who do have their doubts about him, actually read it when it comes out, they’ll find a portrait of a very ambitious but very shrewd, cautious, thoughtful and intuitive guy. In the same way Maraniss explained people as vividly diverse as Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, he nails Obama,” Warren added.
The problem is that Obama doesn’t want to be nailed down. He is a control freak when it comes to messaging his own life — he won’t utter any words he thinks he couldn’t have written himself, and often lays out detailed blueprints of his speeches before letting his speech-writing staff have at it.
Horrors! A guy who actually wants to say the things he wants to say? That's terrible. But wait, there's more analysis:
“During an interview in the Oval Office, Obama acknowledged that, while Cook was his New York girlfriend, the description in his memoir was a ‘compression’ of girlfriends, including one who followed Genevieve [Cook] when he lived in Chicago,” Maraniss writes.
But that revelation, while hardly flattering, isn’t exactly a tabloid blockbuster. It’s the underlying point that’s disquieting, that Obama has applied that same “compression” to his personal and political narrative.
This theme is woven throughout the article. Byers would like readers to understand that this undisclosed-but-actually-fully-disclosed composite character should matter to us because it suggests that the writer of a memoir, in this case Barack Obama, compresses events, people and even time into a composite in order to build a narrative. And also to protect people who might not want to be known as "Barack Obama's white girlfriend," of course.
Byers' Friday defense of his gotcha journalism on Wednesday is really the narrative that should be exposed, because what it lays bare is the need to invent a controversy, always negative, about the current occupant of the Oval Office. Whether it's the "girlfriend" controversy or his birth certificate, Barack Obama's past is always fair game because it enables the "othering," the idea that there couldn't actually be a black guy in the White House, or if you don't believe it's racial, then that there could actually be a Democrat in the White House whose life does not include some scandal or skeleton waiting for Mr. Dylan Byers of Politico to reveal to the unwashed masses.
Enter Howie Kurtz, who could actually justify his paycheck by nailing this dishonest, nasty piece of yellow journalism for what it is. Here's what Howie had to say:
KURTZ: Time now for the "Media Monitor," our weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business.
Here's what I like, David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is coming out with a biography called "Barack Obama: The Story."
And in a provocative "Vanity Fair" excerpt, he discovers an ex- girlfriend named Genevieve Cook who wrote in her diary 37 years ago, "His warmth can be deceptive. Though he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness."
That does sound familiar. And Obama, who said in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," that some characters were composite, told Maraniss the New York girlfriend described in the book was indeed a composite.
This led to an overheated "Drudge" headline, "Obama Admits Fabricating Girlfriend in Memoir." More like literary license.
Please note that Howie Kurtz just mildly rebuked Drudge while ignoring Politico's role completely. Not even a peep, not a mention, not a finger point, nothing. Crickets. Some right-wing bloggers were vocal about their anger at Byers, including Jennifer Rubin, who never stoops too low to get that gotcha but this time actually is right about the Byers piece. The best analysis of all comes from Dave Weigel, who probably ought to take Howie's place as media critic, since he seems to hit it right on the money far more often than not:
This has been known for years. Obama's memoir has stymied reporters because characters who might have some insights appear in composite form. The most famous of them, up to now, was a guy named "Ray," who gets all of Dreams's "angry black dude" lines. Is it kosher for a future president to write like this and then be cagey about who was who? Interesting discussion! But in 2012, you can't "admit" something you told book-buyers in 1995.
It's a typical, disappointing way for the Maraniss book (which is fantastic) to hit the MSM. The endlessly repeated conspiracist's criticism of Obama is that 1) nobody knows anything about his early life and 2) the media never tried to find out. The birther industry is full of half-reported anecdotes or "facts" like the old chestnut about Pakistan having a travel ban that would have prevented Obama from going there -- unless he wasn't American! (There was no travel ban.) Maraniss reports out an insane number of details from Dunham and Obama family history. The public reaction: A frantic search for something else to be conspiracy-minded about.
I've written to request a review copy of Maraniss' book. David Maraniss is a highly respected biographer who knows how to write books with longevity and relevance long past the expiration date of the subject he's written about. I have never seen him write with an eye to "gotcha," but he is an expert at communicating nuance and illuminating the reader as to why a certain person might make decisions a certain way, or approach a problem differently than conventional wisdom might dictate. I doubt the Obama administration is particularly worried about Maraniss' book, but it is likely they could be concerned about how people like Howard Kurtz and the right-wing blogosphere, including Politico might twist it.
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