There is an art to junk journalism: Write a flashy headline that isn’t supported by the story itself, treat old news as a revelation and assert that those about whom you are writing are terribly frightened of what you are writing.
Politico’s accounts of David Maraniss’s forthcoming “Barack Obama: The Story” fit this profile perfectly. Wednesday was the breathless report that Maraniss (a Post editor) had determined the girlfriend described in Obama’s memoir was a composite character. Then came the Update: “In the reissue of ‘Dreams from My Father,’ Obama writes in the introduction that ‘some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known.’” Then the Correction: “An earlier version of this blog post stated that Obama had acknowledged using composite characters in the reissue. In fact, Obama acknowledged the use of composite characters in the first edition of the book.” Thunk. Then it’s not all that new. And it would seem that either the Politico scribe (who writes on media, spending much of his time reporting what journalists write about other journalists) didn’t know that everyone else already knew Obama had used this literary device, or he was inflating a non-story to draw clicks.
Not cowed by the torrent of eye-rolling from the rest of the media, Politico is back with another account of Maraniss’s book today, headlined, “The dangerous new Obama book.” Really? Oh, yes! We are told: “Yet, make no mistake, this is a dangerous book for Obama, and White House staffers have been fretting about it in a low-grade way for a long, long time — in part because it could redefine the self-portrait Obama skillfully created for himself in 1995 with ‘Dreams from My Father.’” Where is the evidence for the three-alarm fire at the White House? Obama gave Maraniss a long interview. That’s it.
Moreover, the Politico writers seem to have missed the point here. The Maraniss excerpts published in Vanity Fair, including snippets of Obama’s cringe-inducing letters, do not reveal the youthful Obama to be a striver. They show him to be the very same pretentious, liberal poser he is today. (In fairness, many of us wrote a lot of embarrassing prose in our youth, although Obama may be in a class by himself when it comes to name-dropping and self-absorption.) Whatever the White House is or isn’t concerned about, it isn’t that Obama was overly ambitious, because he wasn’t in his youth.
Meanwhile, while the story took center stage on the Politico website there were: a stand-off between China and the U.S. over the fate of a blind dissident, explosions in Afghanistan in the wake of the president’s speech, and plenty of presidential campaign news. But none of that is nearly so-click worthy as a non-news story about a book that has transfixed Politico. If only it were so obsessed with examining Obama’s record in office.