CNN's O'Brien Grills 'The Obamas' Author Over 'Controversial' Portrait of First Lady

In a testy interview Friday morning on CNN's Starting Point, host Soledad O'Brien gave Times reporter Jodi Kantor the third degree over the credibility of her new book "The Obamas." O'Brien repeatedly hit Kantor for not having interviewed First Lady Michelle Obama since 2009, despite Kantor having used Obama's own aides as sources for her material.

In addition, Kantor responded to O'Brien scolding her to "Get Real" earlier this week, which NewsBusters reported on. The CNN anchor had incorrectly claimed that reports from multiple news outlets discredited a segment in Kantor's book – but the author set the story straight on Friday.

One of O'Brien's main disputes with the book was that while it was about the Obamas, Kantor hadn't interviewed Michelle Obama since 2009. Kantor argued that the book was journalistically sound given that she used Obama's own aides as sources, and was given access to them by the First Lady herself. This was the exchange:

KANTOR: Why do you think the White House cooperated with the book?

O'BRIEN: I have no idea. I don't have the slightest idea.

KANTOR: They knew exactly what they were getting into, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: I would have no idea. But clearly the First Lady did not cooperate with the book. And I'm not apologizing for the First Lady.

KANTOR: She did. She gave me access to her East Wing. Why did she let me talk to all of her top aides?

O'BRIEN: She did not give you an interview.

KANTOR: She hasn't given any book interviews.

 

 

O'Brien hastily ended the interview. Earlier on, Kantor had also challenged O'Brien's dismissal of her reports on a White House Halloween party in 2009.

NewsBusters had reported on O'Brien's complete flub of the facts on Monday. The CNN host tried to dismantle Kantor's report that the Obamas wanted to keep secret a lavish party with celebrity guests, which would not look good in the midst of hard economic times. Kantor responded on Friday.

"[Y]ou did a segment a couple of days ago, I think called "Get Real" where you said that my reporting on the Halloween party was wrong. But actually I don't know if you had read the book at that point, but you misdescribed my reporting," Kantor insisted.

"The situation at the Halloween party was that the outdoor part of the celebration, the trick-or-treating on the North Portico was public. It was the party inside that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp contributed to that was kept very quiet."

O'Brien also disputed the book's credibility by citing the First Lady's disgust with the book in an interview she had with CBS. "The First Lady, as I know you know, thinks that this book is not a flattering portrait of her," O'Brien told Kantor before showing her the clip of Obama dismissing the reports as more portrayals of her as an "angry black woman."

Twice, Kantor challenged that assumption, even telling O'Brien that she was putting words in her mouth. "Well, I think that words like bitter are coming from you, not from me. I definitely never used that word," Kantor shot back.

O'Brien acknowledged that "you're right. You didn't use the word bitter. That's sort of my characterization," before insisting that Kantor implied Obama was "bitter."

A relevant transcript of the interview, which aired on January 13 at 7:35 a.m. EST, is as follows:

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: This morning, a controversial new book to talk about. It's about the Obamas. It's called "The Obamas," and it's advertised as a rare look behind the closed doors of the White House. It also paints a pretty controversial picture of the first couple. (...) The First Lady, as I know you know, thinks that this book is not a flattering portrait of her. Do you think it is?

(...)
 


O'BRIEN: But your portrait, I think it's fair to say, having marked up the book pretty significantly, is the tone is sort of a sense of a woman who is frustrated, unhappy, and a little bitter about having the privilege of being the First Lady. End of Chapter Two, they noticed the President and First Lady seem subdued. "We live in the White House now," Michelle Obama told them. I mean there's not --

(Crosstalk)

O'BRIEN: – and at the end, what she didn't mention at the food bank – end of chapter three. Let me just read another chunk of it, end of chapter three – and this is how you end these chapters. What she didn't mention in the food bank was that it had drawn widespread coverage for an unintended reason, to stuff the bags the First Lady had worn $515 pair of sneakers by the French designer Lynn Vin.

You know what, it kind of – I could see how someone might feel like you're constantly giving a portrait of a person who's unhappy about what your average person might think would be a really wonderful privilege. Do you think – do you understand that perspective?

JODI KANTOR, correspondent, New York Times: Well, I think that words like bitter are coming from you, not from me. I definitely never used that word. And I consistently find that that – you did a segment a couple of days ago. I think called "Get Real" where you said that my reporting on the Halloween party was wrong. But actually I don't know if you had read the book at that point, but you misdescribed my reporting. The situation at the Halloween party was that the outdoor part of the celebration, the trick-or-treating on the North Portico was public.

It was the party inside that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp contributed to that was kept very quiet. But I – you know, also in the media coverage what's been lost is the significance of that story, which is part of the First Lady's turn around. The story I tell is more uplifting than the one you're describing. You're quoting from the early chapters where she has a very difficult time when she first lands in the White House. She's a stranger to this universe.

O'BRIEN: But I'll pull from the–

(Crosstalk)

KANTOR: The rest of the story is actually about her turning around, and the surprise of this story is that by this summer what White House aides were telling me was that the First Lady was actually sort of more content with this life than the President was. And that was a great surprise to me, having covered them for this long. And we see many moments of triumph and fulfillment in this book.

O'BRIEN: Let me interrupt you there – for one moment, let me stop you there for one moment. So you've covered them, but you really hadn't interviewed them since 2009. So is there something about telling someone's story of their personal relationship of a marriage and sort of framing a presidency through the prism of a marriage that's a little bit unfair if you haven't interviewed the people in the marriage in the White House since 2009?

KANTOR: Well, it's not sort of secrets of the Obama marriage. That's definitely not this book. It's about translating their partnership to the presidential level. And so I'll give you an example of how I reported this. There's a very moving story in the book about the night that Gabrielle Giffords was shot and the Obamas are having dinner and they're talking about it. So how could I, an outsider, possibly know that story?

Well, I sat with Valerie Jarrett, one of their closest advisers and aides in her West Wing office and she was at dinner with them that night and she told me about their reactions. And the book doesn't say, you know, Michelle Obama thought to herself, you know, da-da-da. I did what journalists always do, which I talked to sources really close to the President and First Lady who were credible and who participated in this book and weren't forced into it and told me the story. And the other thing, Soledad, is as journalists, I don't think –

O'BRIEN: But let me stop you there. The First Lady has said, how would you know that these -- how would you know what's inside – what's inside her head. And I'll read you a little bit, you're right. You didn't use the word bitter. That's sort of my characterization. But on the front flap here's the words you did use, you said, Michelle Obama, and even as she charmed the public, she struggled to gain an internal influence and to reconcile her natural bluntness and strong opinions with her confining new role.

A lot of people read that and they're like oh, that sounds like an angry black woman who is now in the White House and kind of frustrated and unhappy and a little bit pissed off about being First Lady. Can you understand her unhappiness with that? Those are your words, not mine.

KANTOR: Again, I never used the phrase "angry black woman." One of the things I documented very carefully in the book is that first lady-hood is a really hard job. And pretty much every woman who has ever had it has struggled with it in some way.

If you read the Laura Bush memoir, for example, she talks about feeling very misunderstood as first lady. She talks about the isolation of living in the residence. You know, the house is practically –

(Crosstalk)

O'BRIEN: Isn't that the point, but in a way – (chuckles) – isn't that the point that that's her memoir, right? So after she leaves the White House, as the first lady –  who's often, people keep their hands off the woman who is not elected to the office but is in the White House job to watch the kids. They write a memoir. And it's her take on her experience within the White House.

KANTOR: Are you saying that the – but Soledad, your argument is that the First Lady shouldn't be covered in a serious way by journalists. And I look forward to reading her memoir.

O'BRIEN: I think that if you're going to –

KANTOR: But a reported book by an outside fair observer is a totally different project. It's not illegitimate –

O'BRIEN: You have not interviewed her. And you haven't interviewed her. You haven't – I don't even know the First Lady. I interviewed her once many years ago, four years ago. You haven't interviewed her since 2009. And there are many moments in the book where you talk about things that are internal to her relationship with her husband, the President. So I'm just saying, I do think you should cover her as a journalist.

I'm just saying you can understand how someone would feel having their relationship taken apart in a book, deconstructed in the book from someone who hasn't really done an interview with the two parties involved. That's all I'm saying.

(Crosstalk)

JODI KANTOR, AUTHOR: I spent 40 minutes talking to the two parties involved. But also, this is what biography is.

(Crosstalk)

O'BRIEN: In 2009. Yes, in 2009. I hear you. I get it. Right. But trying to understand a marriage between two people and the last time you talked to them together was in 2009. I think the First Lady has – again, don't know her, personally at all.

(Crosstalk)

O'BRIEN: – but I think she has some valid complaints about it.

KANTOR: Then why do you think the White House cooperated with this book?

(Crosstalk)

KANTOR: Why do you think the White House cooperated with the book?

O'BRIEN: I have no idea. I don't have the slightest idea.

KANTOR: They knew exactly what they were getting into, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: I would have no idea. But clearly the First Lady did not cooperate with the book. And I'm not apologizing for the First Lady.

KANTOR: She did. She gave me access to her East Wing. Why did she let me talk to all of her top aides?

O'BRIEN: She did not give you an interview.

KANTOR: She hasn't given any book interviews.

(Crosstalk)

O'BRIEN: Ultimately, you didn't – ultimately, you didn't interview her. We are out of time. We have covered this ground. I'm so grateful for your time.
 

Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014