Jodi Kantor gets a grilling from Upper West Side Barnes & Noble patrons about her book, ‘The Obamas’

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Jodi Kantor. ()
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It's been a busy, rough week for Jodi Kantor, the New York Times reporter whose new book about the first family, The Obamas, entered the world on Tuesday to mixed reviews and controversy, as the White House aggressively counterspins her narrative.

It started last Friday when a White House spokesman called the book "an overdramatization of old news," and went on to say that Kantor hadn't spoken to either of her subjects in years. Days later, a list of "alleged errors" surfaced in Mike Allen's column in Politico (though the alleged-error-list itself turned out to be somewhat problematic). And yesterday morning, Michelle Obama herself challenged Kantor's reporting during a CBS News interview with Gayle King, suggesting the book innacurately portrays her as "some kind of angry black woman."

One might have expected the dozens who came to hear Kantor speak last night at Barnes & Noble on 82nd Street and Broadway to be a more sympathetic bunch.

Enough of them had shown up by the event's 7 p.m. start time that the crowd was spilling out of the designated seating area on the second floor and into the surrounding stacks. Latecomers huddled around a display table stocked with test prep books, craning their necks for a view of the author as she entertained inquiries from those with seats.

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It was one of those curious scenarios in which the person who usually asks the questions suddenly finds herself answering them. For the most part, Kantor, whose latest work is being thoroughly picked apart by the media (with the encouragement of its subjects) was able to take comfort in the warm embrace of the Weekender-subscribing intellectuals of the Upper West Side. But the question-and-answer session that followed her 13-minute talk immediately touched on some of the very topics for which she is under fire.

One person asked how many of the scenes that are reported in the book Kantor had actually been present for and how many were based on accounts from sources, echoing criticism from some of Kantor's detractors in recent days that her reporting isn't thick enough to fill 368 pages of a book that lacks participation from the people it is about.

Kantor, who's reported extensively on the president and first lady for the Times over the past three years but hasn't interviewed either of them since 2009, didn't give an exact count, but rather an example of each type of scene, the first being a visit to the Iowa State Fair in 2008 on which she accompanied the Obamas and the second being an Oval Office meeting that she described as "one of the turning points of the book," in which the matter of Michelle Obama's midterm campaigning was discussed. 

"What I did was talk to a whole bunch of people in the room," said Kantor, who wore a casual green dress, from her perch at the lectern. "For some of the most sensitive scenes," like the one where former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs curses out Michelle Obama, "I think I talked to six people who were actually sitting there in that meeting so I could be sure that I had everything right."

Why didn't Kantor get a one-on-one interview with Michelle Obama, the second person to ask a question wanted to know.

Kantor's answer: "The book is reported based on 200 interviews. I talked to about 33 White House aides. When I started the project, I had just gotten an interview with the Obamas. I sat down with them for 40 minutes in the Oval Office. And, you know, a couple of things happened. At first they said that it was a possibility, but at the end of the process—again, I don't want to speak for them ... but I was told that by the end of the process, they did feel that I [already] had this big interview with them that got a lot of attention two years ago."

Short answer: "After the Ron Suskind book came out," which detailed internal rivalries within the White House during its response to the economic crisis, "they stopped giving book interviews."

And what did she have to say about Michelle Obama's remarks to Gayle King? Aside from the "angry black woman" comment, Obama also told King that she had never clashed with her husband's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. (She also said that she had not and would not read the book.)

"The book doesn't really say either of those things," said Kantor. "There's definitely no description of her as an angry black woman. I've never written about her that way. When those charges were leveled against her in the 2008 campaign I was one of the reporters who did the research to get a more accurate description out there. And the other thing is that the book doesn't say that she and Rahm Emanuel clashed directly. So my assumption is that she was responding to some of the coverage. Because some of the coverage of the book has definitely been exaggerated."

It was hard to see who was in the audience, but at least one notable journalist was present: Edward Felsenthal, who recently resigned as executive editor of Tina Brown's NewsBeast.

He wanted to know what comes next for Michelle Obama after the White House.

"The question of what she'll do after the White House is a question of great suspense," said Kantor, though she's pretty sure the first lady's future does not include a Hillary Clinton-style second act. "I really, really, really don't think that's gonna happen."