Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith criticizes President Barack Obama for falsifying a significant portion of his first autobiography, Dreams from My Father. Smith builds his case on the research in David Maraniss’s new book, Barack Obama: The Story. But even when joining Obama’s critics, Smith tries to protect him–and the media that allowed Obama to get away with his lies for years, with no small amount of help from Smith himself.
Smith says that Maraniss presents “38 instances” in which the available evidence contradicts “significant elements of Obama’s own story of his life and his family history.” Yet he all but excuses Obama’s falsehoods, claiming that they were motivated by a desire “[t]o tell a familiar, simple, and ultimately optimistic story about race and identity in the 20th Century.” That Obama might have had political ambitions in mind–given that the book was released on the eve of his campaign for the Illinois state senate–does not compute for Smith.
Smith does blame Obama for creating so many false narratives about himself–but then claims Obama shares the blame with conservatives, whom he attacks for taking the president’s claims about himself seriously:
That the core narrative of Dreams could have survived this long into Obama’s public life is the product in part of an inadvertent conspiracy between the president and his enemies. His memoir evokes an angry, misspent youth; a deep and lifelong obsession with race; foreign and strongly Muslim heritage; and roots in the 20th Century’s self-consciously leftist anti-colonial struggle. Obama’s conservative critics have, since the beginnings of his time on the national scene, taken the self-portrait at face value, and sought to deepen it to portray him as a leftist and a foreigner.
By Smith’s warped moral reasoning, the liar is only as much to blame–and perhaps even less–as those to whom he has lied. Such pleading for Obama’s moral exceptionalism is a hallmark of mainstream media bias.
But the most revealing deficiency in Smith’s argument is that he absolves the mainstream media completely, failing to criticize the role journalists played in aiding and abetting the Obama myth, by commission or omission. Surely it ought to have been the basic duty of journalists in 2008–or even in 2004, or 1996–to investigate Obama’s claims, they way they do so eagerly with Republicans like Sarah Palin or Marco Rubio?
Smith notes that a few journalists did try “to chase some of the memoir’s tantalizing yarns”–and promptly cites a New York Times reporter who found that Obama’s admitted drug habit in his youth was less severe than he claimed–not more severe, as Maraniss has now revealed. The fact is that in 2008, mainstream journalists–Smith included–rarely took an interest in information that damaged Obama. When forced to confront his flaws, journalists often proclaimed Obama’s vices to be virtues. The 2012 election is off to a similar start–though given Obama’s public record of failure, and the presence of an emboldened conservative new media, mainstream journalists are at least attempting to pay homage to the notion of vetting the president this time.
They are doing so not only to reclaim their pretense at objectivity, but to cover up their culpability in pushing the American people to elect a man who was both unprepared for and uninterested in the tasks of leadership.