CNN talent Piers Morgan and Soledad O’Brien just finished taking turns attempting to shellack Jodi Kantor, author of the new book “The Obamas.” At their disposal, they had plenty of material to play with, including Kantor’s inexplicable comments to Chicago magazine, the incident in which she mischaracterizes the White House’s approach to a Halloween party and other assorted scraps.
Yet what nit did the CNN big shots choose to pick? The fact that Kantor didn’t get an interview with Michelle Obama.
O’Brien wields this fact like a billy club, smashing Kantor with it every time Kantor dares to make a point. “She did not give you an interview,” O’Brien protests. She also says this: “Trying to understand a marriage between two people and the last time you talked to them together was in 2009 . . . I think the first lady . . . has some valid complaints about it.” To watch O’Brien “grilling” Kantor is to observe smiley-face closed-mindedness. (The first couple did do a sit-down with Kantor for her New York Times Magazine piece in 2009 but didn’t do another round for her book.)
As for Morgan, well, he does much the same thing, only in a more relaxed fashion. He wonders how Kantor figured out what’s “going on” in the head of the first lady. He sympathizes with Michelle Obama’s annoyance with the book, which she hasn’t yet read. He raises questions as to whether Kantor has been “fair” to her.
Are these journalists asking the questions or are they White House surrogates? There is such a thing as unauthorized biography. It comes about when a journalist asks a public figure whether he or she will cooperate for a book, the public figure says no and the journalist proceeds anyhow. To judge from Kantor’s words, this isn’t quite such an instance, because she got some cooperation from many sources in the White House.
Even so, the inability of Morgan and O’Brien to grasp that honest and thorough pieces of journalism can arise from investigations that do not include the principals forms a huge conceptual hole right in the middle of CNN’s coverage of Kantor’s book. It’s a point that Morgan, of all individuals, should understand without strain. He, after all, is a former leader of British tabloids. How many of the celeb exposes turned out by his charges carried the full and explicit cooperation of the subjects?
Camille Johnston, a former aide to the first lady, told me last week that it was policy in the office of the first lady to stiff-arm book-interview requests. Johnston herself advocated this approach so as to leave the landscape wide open for Michelle Obama in case she ever wanted to pen a memoir. Fair enough — that’s the first lady’s prerogative.
But if you extrapolate just a touch, O’Brien and Morgan are suggesting that Kantor refrain from reporting on the topic just because the principals declined an interview. Should the government ever establish a censorship office, I nominate these two to run it.
The interviews mark some progress on the part of Kantor, who capably defends her work and the cause of journalism in the face of persistent tendentiousness. Of course, after this, she couldn’t plausibly do much worse.
Next time, she need only weed out her exalted opinion of her own work. When pressed on the negative reaction, she countered that the “real book that exists for people who are reading it . . . is this sensitive, nuanced, textured portrayal of the Obamas in the White House.” That’s the sort of language that a reviewer is supposed to use, not the author.
This, by the way, is an unauthorized blog post on Kantor, who has declined my many attempts to collect comment from her.