At a Wednesday town hall meeting in Lynchburg, Virginia, Barack Obama derided The New York Times number-one bestseller The Obama Nation, and its author, Jerome Corsi. He’s “just making stuff up,” Obama said. “But it gets a lot of play on Fox News.”
Fox News has been a particularly fruitful platform for Dr. Corsi. During his Hannity and Colmes appearance last week, the Harvard-educated author boasted about the show’s promotional capabilities: “There’s a great formula, go on Sean Hannity’s radio show first to the day. Sean Hannity later in the day, you get a best seller.”
Corsi made his television debut on Hannity and Colmes in 2004, discussing his book Unfit for Command—an assault on the military record of John Kerry, co-authored with longtime Kerry nemesis John O’Neill. The book soon rose to the top of the Times’s bestseller list, and played a major role in Kerry’s defeat.
Several print outlets attempted to verify Corsi’s claims about Kerry, concluding ultimately that they were, at best, incomplete. Meanwhile, cable news outlets barreled along with nonstop coverage, which mostly served to inflate the controversy. Many television hosts echoed Sean Hannity’s thoughts: “You weren’t in Vietnam. I wasn’t in Vietnam,” he told Kerry advisor Jeh Johnson. “I don’t think we can determine the truth here. This is why we’re going to let the audience decide.”
This postmodern take on truth granted legitimacy to Corsi’s arguments at the height of the 2004 cable campaign news frenzy, and left American viewers to digest a Rashomonic array of Vietnam stories on their own. Viewers, not journalists, had to determine which decorated veteran was most credible—John Kerry or the Swiftees.
With Obama Nation, print media outlets have repeated their efforts to fact-check Corsi. But this time around, even cable news hosts (apart from Sean Hannity) have been much more willing to openly challenge Corsi. They have featured him alongside representatives of Media Matters and other opposing groups; they have introduced him as a discredited author and discussed his more outlandish theories.
Of course, Corsi’s allegations about Obama have proven much easier to debunk, compared with his distant wartime accounts of John Kerry. Corsi claims Obama did not dedicate Dreams from My Father to his parents, when, in fact, the final page of his introduction states, “It is to my family, though, my mother, my grandparents, my siblings, stretched across oceans and continents that I owe the deepest gratitude and to whom I dedicated this book.” He said Obama attended a particularly incendiary Reverend Wright sermon on July 22, 2007, when at that time, Obama was giving a speech halfway across the country. Even Corsi’s more general suggestions—i.e. Obama wants to withdrawal troops from Afghanistan—are pretty far removed from reality.
While news outlets should be commended for increased candor (even if it is through the backhanded “Corsi refuted” storyline), their coverage has also presented Corsi as a phenomenon in the publishing industry: “Sensational accusations on race, religion, and drugs leap from the pages in what’s about to top The New York Times bestseller list,” declared Larry King in the opening of a show last week. Across the print and online spectra, Corsi’s blockbuster book sales have been the headline material, as if to justify why a discredited commentator is still worth covering.
Even when coupled with with candor and fact-checks, the media’s coverage of Corsi is giving the author a great deal of free publicity, and may accomplish little other than giving further credence to his character and claims. On Wednesday, The Huffington Post’s Peter Dreier noted noted that bulk sales, book stores and media promotion have been heavily responsible for the book’s early celebrity.
“Why do we care what Jerome Corsi says?” asked Paul Begala back in 2004, lamenting the fact that “some people are making the mistake of taking him seriously.” Two days later, his own Crossfire program aired a show examining the question “Did Kerry misrepresent his Vietnam record?” and featuring Jerome Corsi as a guest.
News outlets certainly ought to provide a forum to tease out political allegations. But there is a limit to the amount of attention that should be awarded to unsubstantiated controversies. It’s worth remembering that garnering as much free media coverage as possible was a cornerstone of the original Swift Boat strategy. Books like Corsi’s fit snugly into the recent tradition of partisan political gamesmanship. But that doesn’t mean that the press has to play along.