With the field of presidential contenders just beginning to form and the press corps hungry for some new political red meat, it’s not so surprising to find reporters engaged in the well-worn art of inventing controversy so they can have something - anything - juicy to report on. The latest example is on the front page of today’s Washington Post, where Barack Obama gets the sharp end of a slow news day. Everyone’s been eager to find something wrong with the pretty boy (Rush Limbaugh, in typically puerile fashion, even made fun of his ears, dubbing him “Odumbo”). But the Post really goes a little tautological on us, reminding readers, for no apparent reason, of an indiscretion Obama committed in his youth — smoking some pot and doing some “blow” — that he has fully owned up to and written about in his memoir (which has been out for eleven years), and then wonders if this drug use will become an issue in a hypothetical presidential campaign. Slow news day, indeed.
The article is lazy. It presents no new information, restating what is in a memoir that most political watchers (not to mentions the 800,000 people who have bought the book) were well aware of. It creates an issue and then speculates about it. “Obama’s revelations were not an issue during his Senate campaign two years ago,” the reporter, Lois Romano writes. “But now his open narrative of early, bad choices, including drug use starting in high school and ending in college, as well as his tortured search for racial identity, are sure to receive new scrutiny.” Um, like the scrutiny the Post itself is instigating?
Besides trying to spin controversy out of thin air, Romano fails to find a single person, even in the GOP, who thinks that what Obama did thirty years ago when he was in high school will be an issue, should Obama decide to run. GOP consultant Alex Vogel says, “This is not the kind of book you would ever expect a politician to write.” But then admits that, “Anyone who has a career in politics has to be concerned with what’s in their past, but there is no question that Americans have an appetite for redemption.” Another senior GOP strategist working for a potential future presidential rival of Obama’s had to acknowledge that there is nothing in the book that would act as a “disqualifier.” One analyst even describes it as “old news.” (Note to Post editors: any article that has within it a description of the news it reports as “old” probably should not be on the front page.)
It’s normal and right for reporters to dig at the lies and deceptions that politicians maintain in order to present a certain image of past or present propriety. George W. Bush’s own use of cocaine, widely cited but never admitted, would provide a more defensible case for scrutiny. But Obama has never hidden the fact that he used drugs. He even writes in an updated preface to the memoir — as the Post article points out — that he is not embarrassed of how he described what he did when he was younger and that he would offer the same confession today, “even if certain passages have proven to be inconvenient politically.”
Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.
There is something unconscionable about writing such an article, giving it the kind of placement the Post chose to give it, and never acknowledging its role in manufacturing controversy where there wasn’t any and shouldn’t be any. It’s an act of bad faith, not enterprise journalism.