Negative Interest

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Ben Smith debunks Ben Smith

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Ben Smith has a review of David Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story that is uncritical to the point that it cannot be properly called a review; it seems more like Drudge/Breitbart bait than an attempt to critically examine Maraniss’s claims.

The slant of Smith’s piece is that Dreams from My Father is an attempt to make Barack Obama appear “blacker and more disaffected” than he actually was (in Maraniss’s words). It turns out that Obama’s race didn’t actually affect him! It turns out his grandfathers were actually bad people! If only the media had properly vetted him in 2008, we might have known better than to accept the lie that racial identity had any role in shaping the life and career of Barack Obama. Thanks, BuzzFeed.

The real irony of Smith’s review is that, in his attempts to portray Obama as a serial fabricator, he returns to a 2008 New York Times story that has since been thoroughly debunked by, among others, Maraniss’s biography. Smith probably remembers this, because as editor of the BuzzFeed Politics section, he almost certainly saw Gavon Laessig’s “A User’s Guide to Smoking Pot with Barack Obama,” a summary of the 13 juiciest revelations about Obama’s high school drug use. No mention of that in Smith’s review, though. Instead we get this:

Reporters who have sought to chase some of the memoir’s tantalizing yarns have, however, long suspected that Obama might not be as interesting as his fictional doppelganger. “Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs…significantly differs from the recollections of others who do not recall his drug use,” the New York Times’s Serge Kovaleski reported dryly in February of 2008, speculating that Obama had “added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic.” (In one of the stranger entries in the annals of political spin, Obama’s spokesman defended his boss’s claim to have sampled cocaine, calling the book “candid.”)

That is Smith’s entire treatment of Barack Obama’s youthful drug use. How well has Serge Kovaleski’s dry reporting held up in light of Barack Obama: The Story? Not so well, as it turns out:

It’s funny to think that this was one of the major stories vetting Obama’s drug use during the 2008 campaign, and it actually ended up underplaying the extent to which drugs were a part of his life in order to depict him as a fabulist.

Look, it goes without saying that some of the stories and composite characters in Dreams from My Father are rhetorical devices and not an attempt to provide a 100% accurate portrayal of his life. It goes without saying because Obama already said it in the introduction of his book. I have no problem with an attempt to figure out “the real story” of Barack Obama and compare it to the semi-fictionalized version, as long as it is done with the proper context. It would have been nice if Smith’s review was an actual book review and not a collection of all of the ways Obama can be made to look like a liar.

In his rush to celebrate the book as a “debunking,” he either a) endorses a 2008 story he knows is factually incorrect or b) admits that both Maraniss’s book and a BuzzFeed article that he presumably edited (both of which are consistent with the story Obama gives in Dreams) are factually incorrect.

I see Smith’s review as another entry in the new rush of mainstream media outlets to react to conservatives conspiracy theories and attempt to retroactively “vet” the president. The last high profile attempt didn’t go so well, but I’m afraid we can look forward to a very long summer of this.

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June 17, 2012 at 4:49 pm

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June 1, 2012 at 3:12 am

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