Much of the press is done picking over the gossipy bits of meat on the carcass of Jodi Kantor's book The Obamas and is now inclined to toe the White House line that it never should've been written. Oh what a fickle world!
On television and online, the rap on Kantor is that she dared write a book about the first lady without first obtaining exclusive interviews with the first family as to give the book a semblance of authority. Never bother that the White House cooperated with Kantor prior to the book's release, awarding her access to several East Wing aides including Melissa Winter, Susan Sher, Jocelyn Frye, and West Wing higher-ups such as Valerie Jarrett. And pay no attention to the fact that The New York Times reporter has written extensively on the first family from the president's relationship with Jeremiah Wright, to the first lady's roots from slavery, to the first couple's marriage, a 7,500-word piece derived from a 38-minute interview with the couple in 2009. This woman has no right to write about the Obamas!
"You have not interviewed her. You haven’t interviewed her! You haven’t inter–," injected anchor Soledad O'Brien in a combative interview with Kantor on CNN this morning. "I’m just saying you can understand how someone would feel having their relationship taken apart in a book, deconstructed in a book, from someone who hasn’t done an interview with the two parties involved.”
The uncomfortable exchange followed a testy back-and-forth the night prior with CNN's Piers Morgan. "Journalistically, you are relying on other people to tell you how Michelle Obama in particular has been feeling throughout this book and I'm not sure that's entirely fair to her," said Morgan, a man who cut his teeth at such distinguished enterprises as The Daily Mirror and News of the World. "Actually, you don't really have any stuff directly from the first lady to substantiate her feelings other than from other people."
In other quarters, reporters appear to be lapping up the White House's spin campaign against the book sans-skepticism. Yesterday, for instance, Politico reported that a "source close to the Obamas" confirmed that Kantor had requested interviews with the first family beginning last spring but was denied. This supposedly reflected poorly on Kantor because she had said during interviews this week that the White House declined her requests because of the blowback from Ron Suskind's book. "I was told, along with other authors, that they made a decision to avoid book interviews after the Ron Suskind book was published," she said. Ready for the catch? "But the source close to the Obamas points out that Kantor put in requests to interview both Barack and Michelle as early as May, and made subsequent requests before mid-September, when Suskind's book was released," wrote Politico.
While we don't doubt that Kantor was denied an interview prior to Suskind's book release, it's entirely plausible that she tried again after it was published and received the aforementioned excuse. In that case, her greatest sin would be failing to cover the entire universe of reasons why the White House declined an interview. Small potatoes anyone?
In truth, Kantor's greatest sin was her interview with Chicago magazine last week when she boasted about her relationship with the Obamas. "They know exactly who I am." she said. "We have an intense relationship ... I’ve seen them at the [White House] Christmas party every year." If you haven't spoken with someone at length since 2009, few would describe that as "an intense relationship." The remarks undoubtedly set the groundwork for criticisms that Kantor projected more familiarity with her subject than was deserved. But while her relationship may not be "intense" it's hard to argue, from an access point of view, that anyone would be more suited to tell the first family's story. As Politico's Keach Hagey notes, Kantor "relied on 200 interviews, including those with 33 White House aides."
As for attacks on the book by CNN's Morgan and O'Brien, The Washington Post's Erik Wemple makes the salient point. "Are these journalists asking the questions or are they White House surrogates?" he asks. "If you extrapolate just a touch, O’Brien and Morgan are suggesting that Kantor refrain from reporting on the topic just because the principals declined an interview. Should the government ever establish a censorship office, I nominate these two to run it."