What Soledad O'Brien's journalism lecture to Jodi Kantor about 'The Obamas' revealed, and what it didn't
5:10 pm Jan. 16, 20128
On Friday, Jodi Kantor appeared on Soledad O'Brien's CNN morning show, "Starting Point." Kantor is the New York Times reporter whose portrait of the first family, The Obamas, hit stores last week, resulting in the usual controversy about presidential books, with some elements that are specific to the fact that for the first time, our first family is also an African-American family.
Kantor likely knew roughly what she was in for: O'Brien was one of the first to raise objections about the book, when, on Monday's "Starting Point," during a segment called "Get Real" in which O'Brien scolds journalists and politicians for bad fact-checking, she explained that the book "claims to reveal all the hidden secrets of the Obama administration."
Among them, an Alice in Wonderland Tea Party themed Halloween Party back in 2009 that she claims the White House felt was so rift with Hollywood -- rife, I think that word is, English, hello -- rife with Hollywood glamour at a time when Americans were suffering that the White House wanted to keep it a secret. This is what she's claiming in her book.
You take a look at -- and it's not hard, with a Google search you can find that CNN covered the party. NBC covered the party. Reuters covered the party. The Associated Press covered the party. "USA Today" covered the party and the "Chicago Sun Times" also covered the very, very top secret party.
And the coup de grâce:
We asked the White House if they tried to keep it a secret, they said, well, not really.
O'Brien ends with an address to Kantor:
Maybe it wasn't a secret at all, Ms. Kantor. You might want to "Get Real" on that.
One almost wanted the Get Real Dancers to come out at that point, as the Gotcha Dancers do on "Parks & Recreation" when interviewer Joan Callamezzo has them flood the studio to rub salt in the wounds of guests she's righteously accused of lying.
As we've reported, Kantor continued to attract criticism for the book from there on: After an appearance by Michelle Obama on Gayle King's show in which she said though she hadn't read the book, she feared it cast her in the racist stereotype of the "angry black woman," the criticism intensified and made its way into Kantor's direct conversation with readers.
Politico's Keach Hagey has already documented the White House's early-and-often approach to attacking the book:
As soon as the first excerpt went online last Friday, it was out with a statement calling the book an “an overdramatization of old news” about two people the author “hadn’t spoken to in years.” David Axelrod went on “This Week” and called its portrayals of tensions between the White House staff and the first couple inaccurate and exaggerated. An email circulated with a list of errors including things like getting the color of Michelle Obama’s dress wrong—all well before the embargoed book came out on Tuesday.
But when Kantor arrived Friday morning to be interviewed by O'Brien, I'm not sure she was prepared for just how hostile the interview was going to be. (You can watch a video clip from the appearance below or, if you prefer, read the entire transcript here.)
From here, let's extract a couple of O'Brien's rules of reporting:
1. Biographies, especially ones that seek to explore the character of an important public servant, must get the cooperation of the subjects or else they shouldn't be written, because it makes them "unfair."
2. The grievances of a subject who dislikes his or her portrayal in a book or article are right, prima facie, because after all he or she is the subject, and he or she knows him or herself better than any reporter could.
The first principle would have powerful subjects essentially dictating to reporters how they are written about; the second actually goes further, and as a matter of principle asserts that they will be right on those occasions.
It's the sort of stuff you expect to come out of a press office, but not ordinarily the sort of thing you expect to hear from another journalist.
I haven't read Kantor's book. It might be a bad book. I certainly believe it's possible for a book to have an incipiently racist leitmotif or theme, and it's certainly possible that O'Brien thinks this one does.
The mistake, which is dangerous, is to lay the fault at the feet of a reporter for writing the book without the approval of the subject. Because the two very likely have little to do with each other. A serious and rigorously reported book about Michelle Obama could nevertheless be offensive, just as a thinly reported paean to the first lady might not be.
The segment might have been more revealing, if less self-servingly theatrical, if O'Brien had asked Kantor about her angle and why she took it, and focused the interview more on the book she read and less on how she imagines it was reported and written. Let Kantor respond to critics about why she believes the protrait she painted of the first lady isn't a stereotype, and then interview Michelle Obama and go deeper again into Obama's criticism based on what happened there.
(Whether O'Brien or her bookers have tried, or tried and failed, or whether all their interaction with the administration has been on background, is conspicuously unclear in the aftermath of the O'Brien-Kantor dust-up. And for what it's worth, O'Brien's characterization of the role of first lady, that she "is in the White House job to watch the kids," might not itself go over great with FLOTUS press people, and isn't without its own controversial precedent.)
And so what might otherwise have been a productive, and tough, interview about the cultural signifiers in this book about the first African-American to be tasked with the role of first lady, a topic that is absolutely worth examining, turned out to be a made-for-ratings scolding about journalism that made everyone look foolish.