In 2008, NPR's All Things Considered tried to take apart the "swift-booking" of Barack Obama by conservative author Jerome Corsi, insisting in several places "we know" Corsi's reporting wasn't factual. On Friday's All Things Considered, NPR media reporter David Folkenflik took a looser standard in publicizing the Palin-bashing book by liberal author Joe McGinniss. Folkenflik eventually found book experts who disdained the difference between a "warts and all" book and an "all warts" book. But none of the book's claims were held up individually as false. It just on the whole "felt unreliable."
This leads the listener to wonder what might be true: Palin's cocaine-snorting, the premarital sex with NBA stars, the neglect of her children? Which? Folkenflik brings up McGinniss's tawdry publicity stunt, renting right next to the Palin home in Wasilla, running some mini-soundbites of outrage from conservative talkers like Sean Hannity ("creepy") and Bill O'Reilly ("immoral"). But Folkenflik tweeted Friday "How rascally is the writer behind 'The Rogue'?" All in all, the stunt was a plus:
FOLKENFLIK: McGinniss received threats, but he was blessed by the conflict with the Palins: He structured the book around it. Joe McGinniss says he never stalked the Palins or peered at her kids, but says her personal life is fair game for reporting, because she parades her family in public view, on the campaign trail and in such television appearances as the TLC reality series "Sarah Palin's Alaska"...
McGINNISS: She pushes them front and center. She tries to use, as a fundamental aspect of her image, the sense that Sarah is a working mother of five great kids. These people are all - they do everything together. Look at her whole reality show. They travel Alaska together, and they go mining for gold and hunting caribou. And it's all fake. It's all fake. It's utterly fraudulent.
NPR began by touting McGinniss's ancient book on salesmanship of the 1968 Nixon campaign to undergird his credibility (at least with NPR's mostly-liberal audience):
MELISSA BLOCK, anchor: Joe McGinniss is no stranger to writing about Republican politics. His first book was "The Selling of the President," a classic behind-the-scenes look at Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign. His latest book, "The Rogue," depicts Sarah Palin as so driven by ambition that she tramples everything in her path, including her own family. But as NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports, it's the actions of the book's author that are inspiring controversy.
FOLKENFLIK: Joe McGinniss starts the book with the definition of its title, a word Sarah Palin proudly uses to describe herself.
McGINNISS: Rogue: An elephant that has separated from a herd and roams about alone, in which state it is very savage.
FOLKENFLIK: In the pages that follow, McGinniss takes readers on a twisty tale of broken marriage vows, cocaine parties, neglected and troubled children. He tells of a religious fervor that fuels bigotry and a trail of betrayed political supporters and friends abandoned in Palin's wake.
Which one of these are true and which are false? As the story winds down, we never find out, even though we find skepticism:
FOLKENFLIK: McGinniss relies on a dizzying array of on-the-record and anonymous interviews to catalogue family dysfunction as well as political strife. The author and writer Meryl Gordon has profiled prominent political figures such as John Kerry and John and Elizabeth Edwards. She says personal lives are not off limits, and she found "The Rogue" entertaining but said the book felt unreliable.
MERYL GORDON: If you read this book, you don't think she's ever done a good thing in her life. She's a bad mother. She's a bad politician. She's a bad wife. And, you know, I don't think he was looking for anything even balanced or positive about her. He went in with an agenda, and he came out with one.
FOLKENFLIK: Anchorage Daily News columnist Michael Carey has been critical of Palin [very much so], but he says...
MICHAEL CAREY: It seems to me it's a very one-sided view of the world that Sarah Palin came out of. You want to tell the story warts and all, but you don't want to make it all warts.
FOLKENFLIK: Last summer, Palin wrote dismissively of McGinniss on Facebook and concluded, quote, "Thank goodness for social networking sites like this and new media sites which have allowed us to get around the lamestream media and present the facts." She has more than 3 million Facebook followers. But McGinniss says those who know Palin best like her least. He says he's simply deploying classic journalistic tools to reveal the truth about a politician that he sees as a threat to the country. David Folkenflik, NPR News.
The word "falsehood" is never uttered. Folkenflik makes no effort to knock down anything. This is not the treatment Jerome Corsi received for his book The Obama Nation in 2008. On the August 13, 2008 All Things Considered, reporter Don Gonyea and anchor Melissa Block discussed several examples where the Corsi book was just unfactual:
DON GONYEA: It purports to be a fact-based look at Obama's life. It says he's unprepared to be president, he's been unscrutinized by the media, that he's even dangerous, that he would make America weaker militarily and economically, but it also, you know, implies that he has, you know, deep and close and ongoing ties to Islam, and it raises questions about the time he spent as a youth in Indonesia. And you know, we know that Senator Obama is a Christian and has been a long- practicing Christian. So there are things in the book that are shaded a certain way that could have easily been fact-checked, but for whatever reason weren't.
MELISSA BLOCK: What are some of the other allegations that are wrong?
GONYEA: It claims that Senator Obama, for one, was in the audience at a sermon in 2007 by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.We all know Reverend Jeremiah Wright so well now for his sermons that became so controversial. This was a particularly incendiary one where he talks about white arrogance, and we know from news stories and other reporting that Senator Obama was not there, that he was in Florida at the time.
It states that Senator Obama, who has admitted that he used illegal drugs – some marijuana, some cocaine -- in high school -- it states that he's never told us he stopped using those drugs. So for all we know now, he used them through college into his career in public life, perhaps even after being elected to the Senate.
BLOCK: According to the book.
GONYEA: According to the book. We know for a fact - I've been there many times on the campaign trail when Senator Obama has talked about that period in his life. He has said many times, it's been reported, I've heard it, others have heard it, that he hasn't used any illegal drugs since he was 20 years old, and he's talked to students about that in places like Iowa during the caucuses.
On the August 15 Morning Edition, reporter Lynn Neary took another turn, announcing the "new book has already been labeled a political hatchet job by his critics, who charge that it is filled with inaccuracies and falsehoods." Derrick McEvoy of Publishers' Weekly was deployed: "I have a name for it now. You know, they're saying swift-boating Obama; I call it swift-booking Obama."
McEvoy added: "The one thing you must remember about these books, these are written to the choir, to the true believers of the right wing. This base will buy books. I think conservatives will buy books more to reinforce their beliefs than liberals will."
Neary concluded: "Yesterday the Obama campaign did hit back, releasing "Unfit for Publication," a 40-page rebuttal of "Obama Nation." Saying Corsi is a bigoted fringe author, the campaign called his book disgusting and false. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington."
Corsi's evidence-free speculation on Obama's drug use up to his presidential campaign was designed to make waves and sell books, much like McGinniss's house-rental. Corsi and McGinniss are in the same category, but NPR clearly wants to disprove one, and mildly disdain the other.
In fact, McGinniss's publisher, Crown, paid for underwriting announcements last week on WAMU, the Washington DC affiliate of NPR. These people know what NPR listeners want to hear, and they give it to them.