How Politico can fix its mistake about Obama book

If an error in your reporting gives birth to a false rumor, do you have a responsibility to knock down that rumor?

Questions like this are being pondered more than ever before in newsrooms. When do journalists have a responsibility to debunk and battle back against the false narratives and untruths that make their way into public discourse?

New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane waded into this issue with a post that initially set off some incredulous reaction, in part due to the headline, “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?”

I come back to this issue for a specific purpose.

Yesterday Politico media reporter Dylan Byers published a story that looked at a new revelation about Obama’s memoir, “Dreams from My Father.” He saw that a Vanity Fair excerpt of a forthcoming book about Obama’s early days quoted the president as saying that the so-called “New York girlfriend” in his book is a composite character.

Byers was correct that Obama hadn’t previously said which of his characters in the book were composites. So, yes, a bit of news there.

Gregg Birnbaum, a deputy managing editor at Politico and Byer’s editor, replied to my emailed questions to Byers to note the news element of the girlfriend revelation.

“While Obama had written in the introduction to ‘Dreams’ that he used composite characters, he didn’t indicate in the book who those composite characters were,” he wrote. “It had never before been revealed until Wednesday that the New York girlfriend was one of those composites.”

But Byers’ original post went a step further and stated definitively that Obama hadn’t disclosed the use of composites in his book. That’s a big accusation, as far as ethics go. And a significant claim in an election year.

From the original version of Byers’ post:

Though Dreams From My Father is an autobiography, and hence non-fiction, Obama makes no mention of this “compression,” nor is their [sic] any note by the publisher, Broadway Books. In fact, Obama only acknowledged the “compression” after Maraniss learned that Cook had no recollection of some of the events at which Obama said she was present.

Problem: that’s not true. It was easy to verify that, in fact, Obama did disclose the use of composite characters. The relevant disclosure is contained in the introduction of the original and reprint versions of the book. It’s also easy to view the relevant page on Amazon, thus relieving anyone of actually having to, you know, read the entire book.

Byers eventually learned this and added an update and correction at the foot of his post:

UPDATE: In the reissue of “Dreams from My Father,” Obama writes in the introduction that “some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post stated that Obama had acknowledged using composite characters in the reissue. In fact, Obama acknowledged the use of composite characters in the first edition of the book.

Setting aside the fact that both of the above are corrections and should be labeled as such, the issue is that by the time he acknowledged his errors, the mistake had taken on a life of its own.

Update: In a positive development on May 3, Politico added an editor’s note to Byers’ post:

Editors’ Note: The original version of this post inaccurately stated that Barack Obama had not revealed creating composite characters in his book, “Dreams from My Father.”  An update to the post was added that Obama had acknowledged using composite characters in a reissue of the book. When POLITICO later learned that Obama had acknowledged in all editions of his book using composites, the incorrect information was removed from the post and a correction was added stating that Obama had, in fact, disclosed using composites in the first edition of his book. The correction should have included that the inaccurate information was removed from the post. In addition, while POLITICO’s general policy is to post corrections at the end of content, in this case, the error was significant enough that it should have been posted at the top.

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple led his good take on this issue with this screengrab of the Drudge homepage yesterday:

That screaming main headline accusing Obama of fabrication was a link to Byers’ post with the error.

Wemple also points to comments on the Politico post that show how the mistake led to accusations that Obama is a liar (and far worse). This false narrative is probably not going to go away. It will be pushed by people who want to discredit Obama, and it will likely soon be taken as gospel by those inclined to disbelieve the president.

It’s a big problem that a news organization kicked all of this into motion.

One of the reasons this falsehood will likely have a shelf life is the choice to place the correction(s) at the bottom of the story prior to adding the editor’s note. I recall reading an earlier version of the post that actually left the false accusation high in the text. Readers had to get all the way to the bottom to learn that what they had previously read was in fact untrue.

Prior to the addition of the editor’s note in the late afternoon of May 3, Birnbaum said Politico style is to place corrections at the bottom of content.

“When POLITICO realized it had erred by stating in an early version of the blog post that Obama hadn’t disclosed his use of composite characters, that was promptly corrected and placed at the bottom of the post in keeping with POLITICO policy,” he said.

That’s a workable policy for errors that don’t undercut a significant accusation made in the copy. This correction should have been placed where the false accusation was, and the accusation should have been removed. (It also should have been called a correction, not an “Update.”)

I give Byers credit for tweeting the correction in an effort to help spread the correct news:

But right away some Twitter users noted the correction was buried and therefore ineffective:

Not long after his corrective tweet, he sent out another message that suggested he still felt the news he found and highlighted superseded the error:

Again, he received pushback (some of which was of course less than courteous, much like the comments about Obama on his piece):

So was that revelation really news-worthy? It’s only fair to point out that his original tweet emphasized that accusation against Obama:

Obviously, if that were true, it would be the bigger piece of news. Byers knew what the news was and he wrote it that way, like any journalist would. It was emphasized as such in the post, and then picked up and taken to the next level by Drudge.

Politico’s efforts to correct the error have proven ineffective when compared with the way the mistaken accusation took off. Fortunately, there are now articles in The Atlantic Wire and The Atlantic, Talking Points Memo, The New York Observer, American Journalism ReviewSlate, and Business Insider that knock down the accusation.

Even a former editor in chief of one of Obama’s publishers spoke out about how easy it was to confirm the presence of a disclosure in the book. (Disclosure: That editor, Philip Turner, also acquired and published my 2007 book.)

These efforts help smack down this ready-made rumor bomb, but Politico in my view has a responsibility to actively work to promote the correct information, something that is not happening.

What should they do?

A first step is to place the correction at the top of the offending story. Then assign someone to write a follow-up post that notes the misinformation and the fallout from it. Work to promote that follow-up post in order to spread the truth.

Byers would also do well to engage with his critics a bit more. This isn’t to fit him with a hairshirt, but a way for him to demonstrate that he realizes his error and is working to set things right.

Finally, and I realize this may be unrealistic, Politico should reach out to Drudge to see if he can link to the new story. That may prove a fruitless initiative, but actually making the effort would speak volumes. (Want a case study in how one publication did a good job handling a problematic piece of content? Read this.)

Simply put, we in the press are responsible for our work, and for the narratives it creates. When we fail, we are responsible for cleaning up our mess.

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  • Anonymous

    you are either very trusting or a true-blue supporter of the president.  according to you, what Frey did is wrong because “he invented things out of whole cloth.”  but you excuse Pres Obama because “presumably the fight story happend with a different person, and he rolled it into this one person because it was easier . . .”

    the operative word is presumably.  i’m not sure i buy your original premise that it’s ok to rearrange and condense characters.  that it may be done regularly doesn’t make it right.  but beyond that, you are presuming that the girlfriend story falls into the rearranging category rather than the Frey-inventing things out of whole cloth category. 

    we don’t know the answer to that question, however.  and nothing the President has told us gives us any way to decide which it is, other than blind faith. 

  • Louisa Smith

    Why don’t you look at other memoirs, such as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers? Eggers states up front that he uses composite characters, both to facilitate easy storytelling and to protect the identity of people who would rather be anonymous. As long as it’s acknowledged, which it is in Dreams of My Father, this is a perfectly legitimate writing technique for a memoir writer- and it’s worth mentioning that at the time he wrote the book, Obama was not running for President, so it’s not like he felt pressured to be 100% accurate and give full disclosure. Most writers don’t, because there are privacy issues and because real life sometimes is inconveniently difficult to write in order with a full cast. Frey, on the other hand, apparently didn’t just rearrange and condense characters and events here and there- he invented things out of whole cloth. That’s the difference.

    So Obama didn’t have that fight with that particular girlfriend. Last I checked, people are allowed to date more than one person. Presumably the fight story happened with a different person, and he rolled it into this one person because it was easier than trying to introduce a whole new character. That’s usually why it’s done. Memoirs would get pretty dense and tedious without it.

  • Anonymous

    Using composites and making up the facts to an alleged confrontation are two completely different things.  As I understand what I’ve read, it appears that President Obama wrote about a loud verbal fight with a girlfriend that took place outside a theather in NYC that was prompted by the subject matter of a play they attended together about African Americans.  Apparently, Genevieve, the NYC girlfriend, told Maraniss that she only attended one play with Barack and it wasn’t about the African American condition and it did not prompt a fight. 

    So, the question remains, did such a fight occur?  was it in NYC or in Chicago?  what was the play that prompted the confrontation?  Who was the girlfriend? Can you write about such a specific event if in fact it did not happen with the NYC girlfriend and explain it away by saying that  “some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known.”

    This seems to me to go well beyond the explanation of using “composites.”  Are there other such composites?  What are the ethics of calling a book a “memoir” and including composites?  Or of making up stories just for literary effect?

    how is this different from the story written by James Frey where Oprah confronted him telling him that he had “You conned us all.”

    And more to the point of your story, what obligation does Maraniss, the biographer, and others in the media have to comb through the book now and determine what if anything else is fictional or a “composite?”

  • Philip Turner

    Doug_Yonson As the book editor cited by Craig Silverman in his article this morning, I can understand why you would be confused. Politico hasn’t exactly been transparent or helpful in making clear what happened on Dylan Byers’ flawed piece. I caught up to all this late yesterday, after two or three versions of the story had already run, but here’s what I think happened. The first version of the article seems to have suggested that only recently, in interviews with David Marannis for DM’s forthcoming book, did BO admit that he’d made composite characters in “Dreams From My Fathers.” 
    Then, Byers posted what he called an “Update” that reads: <>Next, in a note labeled “Correction,” Byers wrote:<>
    Politico’s style of correction is so stingy and unhelpful that even the most determined readers would be confused about what had happened. This was all totally avoidable for, as my quotes to TPM pointed out, the edition of the book I published in 1996 carried a very plain disclaimer from the author, saying that he’d used “compression” to create composite characters. The book I brought out in 1996 had the disclaimer and every edition since then has had it. 1)For the record, then this is a link to the TPM story where part of my statement to them is quoted:
    2)This is a link to a story yesterday on my blog, where my entire statement appears:
    3) This is a link to a story from last month on my blog, where I write about publishing “Dreams From My Father”:
    This recounting of the Politico error doesn’t even touch on Drudge’s amplification of the original story. I think Craig’s suggestion that Dylan Byers send Drudge notice of his errors, urging Drudge to revise or correct his own record, is a good one, but I hardly expect Byers to take it up, or Drudge to act on it, even if Byers were to do so. Philip Turner 

  • Poynter

    Hi, Doug. No typo. I think they meant “Obama had FIRST acknowledged using composite characters in the reissue.” He did acknowledge it in the reissue, but the original story implied that he had not acknowledged it before then, which he had. Hope that helps, Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online

  • Anonymous

    OK, I am really confused. The “correction”   

    CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post stated
    that Obama had acknowledged using composite characters in the reissue.
    In fact, Obama acknowledged the use of composite characters in the first
    edition of the book.

    seems to be missing a NOT after “Obama had” in the first sentence. The correction should read that the earlier version stated that BO HAD NOT acknowledged using composite characters, and “In fact, Obama   …” and the rest of second sentence.

    Or am I brain-dead? Was this a typo in the Craig’s transcription of the correction, or is the actual correction totally balled up?

    Regards  Doug Yonson