David Maraniss, Meet the Freak Show

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 3 2012 9:32 AM

David Maraniss, Meet the Freak Show

Politico's attempt to clean up after yesterday's botched Drudge-bait* is a thoughtful, odd, meditation on the political impact of David Maraniss's new Obama bio. "This is a dangerous book for Obama," they write, "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."

The oddity is in the assignation of roles -- whose job was it to create a true portrait of Obama? From 2004, when Obama was winning a U.S. Senate race in his state, dogged local reporters like Lynn Sweet noodled about how weird Obama's bio was -- facts mushed up with musings and lessons from un-named or composite characters. But after Obama became a star, the rawness of Dreams got lost. There was no great desire, by most political reporters, to dig into the thousands of words Obama had written about "the almost mathematical precision with which America's race and class problems joined." There was no great desire to dogpile on the first credible black presidential candidate by presenting his decade-old autobiography as a source of controversy.

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"The media have drawn a curtain of admiring incomprehension in front of Obama's own exquisitely written autobiography," wrote the conservative author Steve Sailer in 2009. "Because few have taken the trouble to appreciate Obama on his own terms, the politician functions as our natonal blank slate upon which we sketch out our social fantasies."

Obama's been president for three years now, and the rules have changed. Rumors and conspiracy theories about the president are no longer challenged by FighttheSmears.com, because the media doesn't play along and ignore them. The media -- increasingly aware of what's "going viral," and can thus provide clicks -- reports on them. They're fodder for jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

So instead of being welcomed for what it is, Maraniss's book is going to be minded for "potentially game-changing" anecdotes. Yesterday's blow-up gave us an idea of what the conservative media will do with the book. Expect 10,000 or so versions of this story: "Why didn't liberal media vet Obama and find out about his ex-girlfriend's diary?" It's actually a fair question (one answer: David Maraniss is better than most reporters), because the media took a lot for granted about Obama's life.

*Not that it failed to bait Drudge! By failing to put the "composite" fact in context -- a fact later cleaned up by two corrections -- Politico's post got more than 2000 Facebook shares.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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