The Audacity of Myth: How the Media Ignored Obama's Lies About His Own Biography and Memoir

[Excerpted from Collusion, by Brent Bozell and Tim Graham]

The media's sneakiest dirty trick in the book is bias by omission, because is is so hard to find, when journalists decide "what the people don't know won't hurt them," or more precisely, "what the people don't know won't hurt our candidate."

In Barack Obama's case this omission emerged in 2012 over his biographical narrative: his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, which became a huge bestseller as he prepared to run for president, and enriched him with an estimated $1.3 million in royalties (not to mention almost $4 million for his campaign book The Audacity of Hope), and that's just through 2007. 

Reporters loved this book. In an October 23, 2006, cover story in Time magazine, Joe Klein oozed about Obama's parentage: "He told the story in brilliant, painful detail in his first book, Dreams from My Father, which may be the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician."

Chris Matthews was even more effusive, to the point of slobbery, on MSNBC, which is to say, typical. The book was "unique because he's a politician and not since U.S. Grant has a politician written his own book, and that is refreshing." It was great literature. "It's almost like Mark Twain. It's so American, it's so textured. It's so, almost sounding like great fiction because it reads like us. It's picturesque. Is that the right word, 'picturesque'? I think it's got that quality."

Matthews was exactly right. It sounded like great fiction because so much of it was fictionalized.

The warning was right there in the preface to his 1995 memoir, where Barack Obama admitted the chapters to come were taking liberties with the truth: "Although much of this book is based on contemporaneous journals or the oral histories of my family, the dialogue is necessarily an approximation of what was actually said or relayed to me." Even the people weren't entirely real: "For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people, I've known, and some events appear out of precise chronology."

Ask a journalist if he supports the notion of a president whose life story is one part mythology, like George Washington and the cherry tree. Some media people have been stunned when they are told of this paragraph, as if they never read this book, or skipped the preface. But that has never nicked the larger legend that's been created. The nation's so-called guardians of factual accuracy don't even expect honesty from Obama on his own life story.

Liberal journalists -- especially hacks like Chris Matthews at MSNBC -- routinely disparage conservatives for the "birthers" and their conspiracy theories that Obama can't be president because he wasn't born in the United States. They enjoyed the circus around Donald Trump's demands for Obama's birth certificate as proof that conservatives couldn't accept a black man as president. When Romney clinched the Republican nomination in late May, NBC's Matt Lauer wondered on the Today show, "will his ongoing relationship with Donald Trump overshadow his big moment? As Trump plays the birther card once again."

But the public should see the entire national media as a pack of "mythers"-people who blithely accepted Obama's concocted life story without challenging the factual reliability of any of it. It should be called Fever Dreams From My Father. Or Day Dreams From My Father. Anything to underscore that this should not be seen as a biography.


Instead, Obama was honored for his narrative-mangling skill. In 2008, New York Times reporter Janny Scott oozed, "Senator Obama understands as well as any politician the power of a well-told story. He has risen in politics less on his track record than on his telling of his life story-a tale he has packaged into two hugely successful books that have helped make him a mega-best-selling, two-time Grammy-winning millionaire front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination at age 46." 

Liberals occasionally tried to preserve a fraction of their dignity as journalists with a few uncomfortable facts. But they were quiet about it.

For example, on July 13, 2011, in a story published on page 16, New York Times reporter Kevin Sack explained, "The White House on Wednesday declined to challenge an account in a new book that suggests that President Obama, in his campaign to overhaul American health care, mischaracterized a central anecdote about his mother's deathbed dispute with her insurance company."

The headline said the book "challenges" the Obama story, and in the story they used the word "mischaracterized." It was a whole lot more misleading than that.

That new book was titled A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother. The author was Janny Scott, the same Times reporter who was so impressed with Obama's story-telling in 2008. But she found holes in the narrative. Scott quoted from correspondence from Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, to assert that the 1995 dispute concerned a Cigna disability insurance policy. Her actual health insurer had reimbursed most of her medical expenses without argument. The Times noted that although candidate Obama often suggested that Dunham "was denied health coverage because of a pre-existing condition, it appears from her correspondence that she was only denied disability coverage."

So he was lying. Indeed, reporters could have held Obama accountable for lying repeatedly on his way to his first presidential victory and beyond, obscenely using his own deceased mother as a prop – in a TV ad, in his convention speech, in a presidential debate, and in a town-hall debate over ObamaCare in 2009, just for starters.

Kevin Sack of the Times turned to liberal Harvard professor Robert Blendon to pronounce the obvious: if Obama's phony story line had been discovered during the 2008 campaign, "people would have considered it a significant error." But it was not an error. It was a bald-faced lie, repeated over and over.

Blendon added: "I just took for granted that it was a pre-existing condition health insurance issue." So did the entire American news media.

But the suppressing media not only failed to find this deception in 2008. They ignored it when it was exposed in 2011. Network coverage of this new jaw-dropper on ABC, CBS, and NBC? Zero in 2011, and zero in 2012.

This suppression of Janny Scott's most damaging anecdote was even true for the Times itself. When the paper first ran an excerpt of her book in their Sunday magazine on April 24, 2011, it came with a cover photo of Barack as a pre-schooler standing by his mother in a pirate costume.The article was a flowery bouquet of prose about "the stout, pale-skinned woman in sturdy sandals, standing squarely a half-step ahead of the lithe, darker-skinned figure to her left. His elastic-band body bespoke discipline, even asceticism . . . he had the studied casualness of a catalog model, in khakis, at home in the viewfinder."

After Obama was safely re-elected, David Axelrod insisted that the voters prized Obama's authenticity and disdained Mitt Romney's apparent plasticity. "Barack Obama's very authentic. They knew what drove him. They were comfortable with him."  Authenticity was hardly Obama's strong suit, but how could voters know otherwise when the national media were censoring news?

Obama's "Composite" White Women

David Maraniss of The Washington Post was another reporter flying all over the world trying to separate the real Obama from the phony memoir of Dreams -- but in the friendliest possible way. Maraniss told Vanity Fair that Obama's memoir had value despite its pack of lies: "I say that his memoir is a remarkably insightful exploration of his internal struggle, but should not be read as rigorous factual history. It is not, and the president knew that when he wrote it and knows it now." 

This was a bombshell. Maraniss had spent months exploring Obama's past and held a prestigious editor's post at the dominant paper in the nation's capital, and was overseeing campaign coverage as Obama faced a difficult re-election. But the bombshell never exploded.

In mid-June, his book Barack Obama: The Story came out. On June 5, deep inside the paper, New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani noticed several factual problems with Obama's memoir. She called the book a "forensic deconstruction" of Obama. 

For example, Obama wrote about "a woman in New York that I loved." But while the physical description of this character closely resembles a white Obama girlfriend named Genevieve Cook, Maraniss wrote Obama "distorted her attitudes and some of their experiences, emphasizing his sense that they came from different worlds."

Maraniss relayed that during an interview at the White House on November 10, 2011, Obama acknowledged his description of his New York girlfriend was actually a "compression" of events "that occurred at separate times with several different girlfriends."
Obama didn't just dump his old girlfriends. He then added insult to injury by blurring them into a fictional composite. If a memoir can't be honest about something as trivial as " a women in New York that I loved," how can it be considered accurate with matters that are profound?

The glossy magazine Vanity Fair published an excerpt from Maraniss, but didn't focus very seriously on the "compression." They were fascinated by excerpts from Cook's diary, and letters Obama wrote to another white girlfriend, Alex McNear. On May 2, ABC anchor Diane Sawyer swooned as she quoted Obama's letters, and pretended it was somehow a "peril" for ABC to discover them and praise them.

"One of the perils of being President: Everything you ever wrote will become public. And today, Barack Obama, age 22-long before he met Michelle-new letters and diary entries revealed in Vanity Fair from a biography out soon," Sawyer announced.

"He had college girlfriends, two women… Genevieve Cook and Alex McNear. And in a love letter to McNear, the President writes adoringly about life in New York. Quote, 'Moments trip gently along over here. Snow caps the bushes in unexpected ways. Birds shoot and spin like balls of sound. My feet hum over the dry walks.' Oh, we were all so romantic when we were young. The book relies on a trove of letters and journal entries that Obama and his friends created during the 1980s." 

So much for "peril." Sawyer and ABC never showed the slightest interest in Obama compressing and mangling his college sweethearts in his book.

There was more distortion. Obama also told a story about taking a girlfriend to a "very angry play" by a black playwright and she came out "talking about why black people were angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering-nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said -- and she said that's different, and I said it wasn't, and she said that anger was just a dead end. And we had a big fight, right in front of the theater."

Maraniss reported, "None of this happened with Genevieve." Cook said they attended the theater just once together, to see the British actress Billie Whitelaw performing from the work of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. The one time they were in the midst of a black audience was a trip to the movies in Brooklyn to see Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop. Cook told Maraniss, "I was the only white person in the audience," and "It was such a wonderful, uplifting, mind-blowing experience."

There was no fight. There was no crying in the car (neither person had a car). There was no scene where Obama's girlfriend  asked about angry black people.

Maraniss asked Obama about this at the White House. Obama acknowledged the scene did not happen with Cook. "That was not her," he said. "That was an example of compression. I thought that was a useful theme to make about sort of the interactions I had in the relationship. And so that occupies, what, two paragraphs in the book? My attitude was it would be dishonest for me not to touch on that at all." 

Stop. Rewind. He's saying "it would be dishonest of me" not to make up a story about a black-white lovers' quarrel? To Obama, real life was merely raw material for manufacturing the "larger truth" of his mythology. His story was false -- period.

In another stunning passage from the same chapter of the Maraniss book, a passage that  Vanity Fair did not excerpt -- perhaps because it wasn't about Obama's love life-Obama describes his brief tenure after graduation from Columbia at a place called Business International, which produced newsletters and updates for corporations seeking to do business abroad. Obama boasted, "I had my own office, my own secretary, money in the bank. Sometimes, coming out an interview with Japanese financiers or German bond traders, I would catch my reflection in the elevator doors-see myself in a suit and tie, a briefcase in my hand-and for a split second, I would imagine myself as a captain of industry, barking out orders, closing the deal, before I remembered who it was that I wanted to be and felt pangs of guilt for my lack of resolve."

Maraniss found these recollections were "seen as distortions and misrepresentations by many of the people who had worked with him." They said Obama had no secretary, and his office was the size of a cubicle, barely large enough to fit a desk. The dress code was informal, and people in his position rarely wore suits. "He dressed like a college kid," said his supervisor Lou Celi.

Ralph Diaz, the company's vice president for publications, thought Obama was embellishing his role for dramatic effect "in a book that reads more like a novel." He said "Obama worked at a very, very low position there. . . . The part about seeing his reflection in the elevator doors? There were no reflections there. . . . He was not in this high, talking-to-Swiss-bankers kind of role. He was in the back rooms checking things on the phone."

Another colleague characterized it with equal distaste: "He retells the story as the temptation of Christ . . . the young idealistic would-be community organizer who gets a nice suit and barely escapes moving into the big mansion with the white folks." 

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Maraniss admitted that he bent his usual rules to make his interview with the president more advantageous. What's the harm in a little collusion?

"I did something I rarely do: I gave him a copy of the introduction to the book so he would understand its parameters. I also gave him the table of contents, knowing that some of the chapter titles, such as 'Genevieve and the Veil,' would mean something to him but not to his staff. The interview was scheduled for 45 minutes. It went on for more than an hour and a half. He answered all of my questions, sometimes took issue with my interpretations, but was fairly forthright."

Here's how he was forthright. When Maraniss was interviewed on NBC's Today on June 18, 2012, substitute host David Gregory noted, "You point out inconsistencies. You talk with greater depth and detail about his pot smoking as a young person. You unearth letters from former, you know, loves. Genevieve Cook. How did he react to all of that?"

Maraniss answered: "Well, he's a writer himself. When I first interviewed him, he said, 'David, your introduction'-[which] I let him read-''is interesting, but you called my book fiction.' And I said, 'No, Mr. President, I complimented it. I called it literature.' There's a big difference between memoir and biography. And it wasn't that I was trying to fact check everything that he wrote in his biography, but I just wanted to get the story right. So, he didn't-he didn't really fight with me about it. But it was an interesting conversation."

In the book's introduction, after he praised Dreams as "unusually insightful," Maraniss wrote that "it is important to say it falls into the realm of literature, and not of history and autobiography, and should not be read as a rigorously factual account." 

Gregory asked, "Was he forthcoming about these additional details?" Maraniss understood Gregory's roundabout inquiry and said Obama didn't put up a fight to the charge he'd mangled his own life story:

"In most cases he said, you're probably right. You know, a lot of the mythology of the family was passed along to him that he didn't check. Like, that his step-grandfather in Indonesia he thought died fighting the Dutch in the anti-colonial war. In fact, the man died of a heart attack falling off an ottoman changing the drapes in his living room. You know, that sort of story is something that the president did not check. And when I told him the reality of so many of those things he said, you're probably right." 

These "journalists" were tying themselves into pretzels to avoid calling this a fabrication.

Maraniss faced a tension between his self-perceived role as a historian versus his role as a journalist. The historian wanted to present with some objectivity and detachment a reliable record for the ages. The journalist living in the present was much more circumspect about his findings.


The Punahou Hoops Scoop

Here's the most remarkable discovery of media omissions on Obama's behalf: The Washington Post, the journalistic home base of Maraniss, never touched on the memoir lies. All these passages on Obama's self-made mythology were never republished in the newspaper.

The Post ran massive exposés trying to ruin first Rick Perry, then or Mitt Romney, but published nothing about Obama's blatant myth-making. Instead, on June 5, the Post published a rave review of the Maraniss tome on the front page of the Style section, headlined "A masterful portrait of a guarded politician."

Shamelessly, the Post reviewer, author T. J. Stiles, oozed, "Every biographer knows how difficult it is to render an actual human being with the depth of a fictional character. . . . A character should be capable of surprises without seeming inauthentic or arbitrary."   But Stiles never mentioned Maraniss exposing Obama's fictionalizations. He even wrote Maraniss "makes the fringe skepticism of Obama's birthplace seem even more ridiculous, if possible," but utterly ignored how the Post editor found Obama lied about his mother's almost-immediate departure for the homeland after his birth.

What did Maraniss think of this whitewash? Maraniss didn't mind. He linked to the rave review on Twitter, with the words: "TJ Stiles says 'no review can convey this book's breadth and depth,' but his review of Obama: The Story not 2 shabby.".  Not shabby? Stiles had ignored the most damaging part of the book's depth.

After running very large investigative pieces on the front page trashing Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, Maraniss and the Post provided the perfect contrast of anti-Republican bile with pro-Obama goo. The only Maraniss book excerpt appearing in the newspaper was placed at the top of the Sunday sports section on June 11. The 5,500-word excerpt carried the headline "President Obama's Love for Basketball Can be Traced Back to His High School Team." The story took up two whole pages inside the sports section.

The Post apparently found nothing about Obama's life more illuminating or substantive for readers than repeating that Obama loved basketball -- about which Maraniss had also written syrupy passages in 2008.

Strangely, the excerpt wrapped up with Maraniss laboring to suggest Obama's use of marijuana in high school was very typical for the Disco Era. "If there is a representative teenager's life, Barry Obama lived a version of it in Hawaii in the late 1970s. Several things stood out -- he went to a prestigious school, he lived with his grandparents, his father was gone, his mother was infrequently present, he was a hapa black in a place where most people were a lighter shade of brown-and those traits helped shape his particular character, but they did not make his life odd or mysterious. He smoked pot with his Choom Gang and goofed around outside the classroom, where he came across as smart and mature if not notably studious, but the central activity of his high school life was basketball."

The "choom" in "Choom Gang" was a verb meaning to smoke pot. Maraniss found Obama was an enthusiastic pot smoker, but it was mentioned in passing in the Post. This paragraph was lifted out of a chapter that began with Maraniss reporting the future president and his friends believed in "TA," or "total absorption," as in "[w]Wasting good bud smoke was not tolerated." Barry championed "roof hits," that when they were pot-smoking in the car, all the windows had to be rolled up, and when the pot was gone, they tilted their heads upward to suck in the last bit of smoke from the ceiling. Barry was also known for "intercepting" the rotating joint. 

Try not to be shocked. Those evocative details were left out of the 5,500-word basketball excerpt.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis