Thursday, August 14, 2008


Maybe I'm just imagining this, but it seems to me that the point of Eli Saslow's front-page Washington Post article about Jerome Corsi's Obama-bashing book (and a couple of similar titles) is that it's pointless to concern oneself with objective truth -- what matter are just narratives and counternarratives.

Let's start at the end, with the story's concluding paragraphs:

Readers of the new books are forced to differentiate on their own between bias and biography, between facts and fictionalizations, literary experts said. It is a task most readers have learned to manage. "Readers aren't as gullible as they used to be," said Tom Smith, a biography scholar at Pennsylvania State University at Abington. "One thing we've learned so far with biographies in the 21st century is that every book is going to be one person's take."

Pad a biography with enough slant and opinion, experts said, and a good author can make the same facts reveal two different stories. Take two McCain books that explore the same subject: There's Paul Alexander's glowing portrait in "Man of the People: The Maverick Life and Career of John McCain." Or there's Matt Welch's eviscerating take in "McCain: The Myth of a Maverick."

"Especially in politics, you have a crowded book market and there's probably room for five or six takes that can be totally different," Smith said. "It's ultimately up to the reader to decide which one he likes."

Not which one gets closer to the truth, mind you -- which one the reader likes.

OK, that's just Saslow quoting an academic's take. But let's go to the beginning of the article. You tell me if Saslow doesn't seem to agree with this view -- which, needless to say, would effectively take the press off the hook with regard to fact-checking:

In two autobiographies and dozens of speeches, Barack Obama has weaved the narrative that defines his campaign: An introspective boy gradually comes to terms with his mixed-race heritage and emerges with an "unprejudiced" worldview. He enters politics because of his "love of country" and succeeds by staying faithful to his morals and "transcending the partisan divide."

Two weeks before Obama accepts the Democratic nomination for president, conservative author Jerome R. Corsi has attacked his story with a narrative of his own: The son of an "alcoholic polygamist," Obama deals with his abandonment issues and "black rage" by experimenting with drugs and radical thought. He makes a calculated entrance into politics despite having accomplished little and having developed some "anti-American" sentiments. Once in office, he regularly manipulates the political machine and becomes a liberal who will "divide America."

Corsi's "The Obama Nation" lacks major revelations and has been dismissed by Obama's campaign as a series of lies from a serial liar. Parts of the book have also been disproved by the mainstream media. In 2004, Corsi co-wrote "Unfit for Command," in which Swift boat veterans criticized Sen. John F. Kerry's Vietnam War record. That book was also widely disproved....

Nevertheless, Corsi's book about Obama will debut as a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and threatens the candidate where he could be vulnerable....

Both Democrats and Republicans think the election could hinge on whether Obama's narrative loses its luster. Until recently, he had the luxury of presenting his story alone....

The turning point, for me, is that "Nevertheless." It doesn't matter, Saslow seems to be saying, that Corsi's work has been widely debunked -- it's just one more narrative in the marketplace, and Obama is "vulnerable" to it even if it's full of inaccuracies. And Saslow seems to be saying that in this battle of narratives, he -- as a journalist whose stories can make the front page of The Washington Post -- has no reason to participate. Let narrative battle narrative, and may the narrative voters like win.

And maybe I'm just nitpicking -- reading too much into what may just be a workaday journalist's hasty word choice -- but, er, I don't believe "damning" really means what Saslow thinks it means:

Corsi is most damning in his portrait of the candidate. He implies that Obama misrepresents his religion, for instance, saying that Muslim faith plays a significant role in his ideology, even though he is a practicing Christian. He portrays the senator from Illinois as a savvy opportunist who manipulated Chicago politics and then consistently voted like an "extreme" liberal.

What Corsi writes can be damning only if it genuinely establishes Obama's guilt on the charges. But maybe Saslow doesn't see any difference between making allegations and demonstrating that they're true. Hey, what is truth, anyway?


One more Saslow quote:

In the past few months, other storytellers have proved that a market for skepticism remains. In addition to Corsi's book, two other anti-Obama books rank in the top 35 on's bestseller list. Their titles reveal their intent: "Fleeced," by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann, and "The Case Against Barack Obama," by David Freddoso.

"Storytellers"? I guess that's all these are -- stories. Not compilations of verifiable or falsifiable facts.

(By the way, all three of these books are on the latest New York Times bestseller list, which was e-mailed yesterday -- but the Times indicates that all three are benefiting from bulk buys.)

No comments: