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Ethics and Hypocrisy: Turmoil at The Washington Post

For the time being, at least, it appears that the inmates at The Washington Post have gained the upper hand, forcing management to terminate plans to put British journalist Robert Winnett in charge of the asylum. Much to the inmates’ chagrin, one supposes, this entire episode in American journalism has been far less a dramatic battle for the future of one of the nation’s greatest institutions than a modestly entertaining reenactment of the Iran-Iraq War, in which many outside observers are hoping to see both sides lose.

Perhaps the most entertaining—if also somewhat dispiriting—aspect of the Washington Post slap fight has been the insistence by the paper’s old guard that Winnett simply could not be their new editor because he lacks the requisite “ethical” standards to do so. He is, as the Post’s long-timers fear, too morally compromised to be the leader they so richly deserve. For example, NPR reported that David Maraniss, a “highly regarded Post writer and associate editor,” penned a Facebook post in which he “expressed disgust” at Winnett’s lack of character. Maraniss went so far as to say that “the scandal that has erupted this spring around [Post publisher Will] Lewis and Winnett is worse than the revelation that a Pulitzer Prize-winning account was fabricated by Janet Cooke, a junior Post reporter fed by the hunger of her editors to land a story.”

That’s quite a charge from Maraniss, who, as NPR noted, is among The Washington Post’s most respected and beloved longtime employees. It’s also, one might conclude, an invitation to examine other examples of journalistic ethics as they are practiced at the Post by its old guard, perhaps starting with David Maraniss.

Among other things, Maraniss is also one of the nation’s most esteemed biographers, and among those whom he has profiled is 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama. In 2012, Maraniss wrote Barack Obama: The Story, which sold relatively poorly but nevertheless created quite a public stir. The writer, who was and still is an ardent self-identified fan of Obama’s, called the former president’s much-ballyhooed memoir Dreams from My Father a work of “literature,” which to the less-discerning linguist means that it is “creative writing,” wholly invented, an imaginary tale. Ben Smith, the co-founder of Semafor (and formerly of Politico, BuzzFeed, and the New York Times), is likewise sympathetic to Obama but nonetheless noted 38 distinct and outright lies in Dreams, all documented by Maraniss. Conn Carroll, a senior editorial writer for the Washington Examiner, described Maraniss’s “findings” this way:

President Obama was born in Hawaii and is an American citizen. That much is true. But as the reviews of David Maraniss’s new book, Barack Obama: The Story, come in, it appears that almost everything else in Obama’s supposed autobiography, Dreams from My Father, is complete fiction.

Some of the previously established stories about Obama’s life that Maraniss debunks are funny. Some are mostly inconsequential. Some, however, are important. Many of the stories about race and racism—the issues that Obama claims formed his personality and defined his politics—are things that he just made up. As Ben Smith put it:

Maraniss finds that Obama’s young life was basically conventional, his personal struggles prosaic and later exaggerated. He finds that race, central to Obama’s later thought and included in the subtitle of his memoir, wasn’t a central factor in his Hawaii youth or the existential struggles of his young adulthood…

The memory that the father of his Indonesian stepfather, Soewarno Martodihardjo, was killed by Dutch soldiers in the fight for independence is ‘a concocted myth in almost all respects.’ In fact, Martodihardjo ‘fell off a chair at his home while trying to hang drapes, presumable suffering a heart attack.’

It’s important to note here that Maraniss’s biography is not, as Ben Smith suggests, merely a “debunking” of the “core narrative” of Obama’s book. Rather, it is a debunking of the core narrative of Barack Obama, the man—as sold to the American public. The thoughtful, post-racial politician, shaped by the experiences of his exotic Indonesian youth and his Hawaiian adolescence; the inquisitive Ivy League intellectual, informed by the diverse experiences of his white mother, his white grandparents, his colonially oppressed grandfather, and his absentee yet misunderstood intellectual father; the brilliant, yet sensitive populist whose sense of self was forged through a black identity crisis and the realization of his responsibilities to those whose skin color he shares, despite his unique and inimitable background: none of these exist in any real sense of the word. All of them were fabricated. All were created completely out of whole cloth. None has any foundations in reality at all. Which is to say that the American electorate voted in 2008 for a candidate who was simply “made up.”

Twelve years ago, when Maraniss’s book was published, I wrote a long piece titled “A Very Brady Presidency,” drawing the comparison between Barack Obama and Greg Brady/Johnny Bravo, the latter of whom was selected by music producers to be a superstar recording artist simply because “he fit the suit.” Something similar occurred with Obama, who, with the help of the political powers that be, fashioned for himself a suit that enabled him to fit the visions that the American voters had for their ideal presidential leader. The difference is that Greg Brady had the integrity to take the suit off and not live the lie. Obama, by contrast, wears the suit and lives the lie to this day.

As for David Maraniss, it is inarguable that he is an excellent journalist and one of the most talented biographers working today. At the same time, it is also the case that, perhaps, he should tread lightly while accusing other journalists of moral perfidy. He, better than anyone, knew that Obama was a fraud and that he had concocted a false persona to present to the American people. Yet he nevertheless still considered himself a fan, still believed that Obama was a better man for the job than Mitt Romney, and still supported Obama’s run for reelection. Moreover, he never even suggested otherwise. He never said to the American people, “Barack Obama is a documented incorrigible liar. Caveat Emptor.”

Ironically, the reason he did not do so is because of his own ideological predispositions—ideological predispositions that, not coincidentally, are shared by most of his newsroom colleagues and that are inarguably the cause of the Post’s rapidly declining readership.

To be sure, Maraniss’s own lapses in judgment are undoubtedly less severe than those of which Robert Winnett stands accused. That said, they may be even more consequential and more indicative of a reason for change at The Washington Post.

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About Stephen Soukup

Stephen R. Soukup is the Director of The Political Forum Institute and the author of The Dictatorship of Woke Capital (Encounter, 2021, 2023)

Photo: WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 5: The Washington Post Building at One Franklin Square Building on June 5, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

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