On a long flight to Los Angeles in early August, Rupert Murdoch cracked open Edward Klein's The Amateur, a scathing indictment of President Barack Obama and a summer New York Times best seller.
The book had already been heavily promoted by the media mogul's New York Post, Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network. Murdoch, like some of the hosts he employs on Fox, clearly enjoyed the book and later told his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers that "every voter should read" it.
Well, maybe not every voter.
The Amateur is more likely to appeal to voters predisposed to seeing Obama described as a "thin-skinned," "a narcissist," and a "bungler-in-chief"—someone who pushes "far-left policies," suffers from "extreme haughtiness and excessive pride," "lacks faith in the goodness of American leadership," and is the "most divisive president in recent American history." Or voters, who like Klein, have ever wondered: "Will Americans finally come to recognize the dark side of Barack Obama in the presidential election of 2012?"
In today's polarized media, where partisan divisions become more apparent as the 2012 election draws near, one cable network or website's must-read is another's ignored screed. They say you're not entitled to your own facts, but that isn't always clear on cable news, where viewers can seemingly be watching two very different elections at the same time. As a result, books on Obama and his administration—or individual scenes from them—can be heavily promoted on one network, while receiving very different play, or none at all, on another.
“In cable television, Fox’s and MSNBC’s coverage of the candidates’ character themes are mirror images of each other,” according to Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, in a study released on Aug. 23. While “Fox has offered a mixed view of Romney, its assessments of Obama’s record and character have run negative by a measure of 6 to 1.” Conversely, it found, “the numbers are almost identical, in reverse, for MSNBC.”
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the organization, said in the report that “the American news media in its coverage of the candidates appears increasingly to be a conduit of partisan rhetoric and less a source than it once was of independent reporting.”
Does increased partisanship in the media create greater divisions in the public or are outlets serving up increasingly partisan fare to meet market demands? Hard to say, but what’s clear is that the gap between the views of Republicans and Democrats has only widened in recent years. Americans’ “values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” or when the organization began tracking such views, a June Pew Research Center study found.
Since Obama’s election, several more right-leaning outlets have launched and expanded, including Breitbart’s “Big” sites and The Daily Caller, showing the increased level of interest in taking on the Democrat in the White House. Conversely, the liberal Nation magazine saw its circulation double during the presidency of George W. Bush.
The publishing marketplace, like cable news and the Internet, often rewards the most extreme assessments of Obama; a book’s allegations or arguments are amplified to millions of like-minded consumers of news and opinion. Long gone are the days when network newscasts dominated and voters had a shared sense of the day’s news. And the heightened polarization can make it tough for authors of non-polemical books on the president to compete while agenda-laden cable news or talk radio often reduce several hundred pages to a few magnified or distorted details.
‘NONSENSE’ OR PUBLISHING GOLD?
Klein has effectively used the conservative media apparatus to sell a lot of books in recent years. The Amateur has outsold—by 7 to 1—David Maraniss’ Barack Obama: The Story, 155,000 to 22,000, according to Nielsen BookScan. While it also has outsold other political non-fiction books, spending 14 consecutive weeks on the Times best-seller list, it hasn’t topped several works of fiction. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, published June 5, has sold 268,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan. James Patterson’s latest, The 11th Hour, which was published a week before The Amateur, has currently sold 188,000 copies.
In writing his exhaustively detailed book, Maraniss spent years tracing several generations of Obama’s family history through Honolulu, Jakarta, Topeka, Chicago, New York City and Western Kenya. James Fallows, called it in the New York Times Book Review, a “revelatory book, which anyone interested in modern politics will want to read, and which will certainly shape our understanding of President Obama’s strengths, weaknesses and inscrutabilities.”
Since June, Maraniss has gotten a lot of media love, including interviews on CNN, NPR and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He turned down an appearance on “The Daily Show” for a segment focusing on Obama’s high school pot smoking as a member of “The Choom Gang.” Maraniss got one interview request from Fox News, which he accepted, but specifically for a segment on factual discrepancies between his book and Obama’s memoir.
Klein has yet to receive an invite to discuss his book from CNN, MSNBC or other networks, but his claims led the Drudge Report website, a conservative aggregation juggernaut, and were given oxygen throughout Murdoch’s media empire even before The Amateur hit shelves May 15. Two days earlier, the New York Post devoted its cover to Klein’s claims of a rift between first lady Michelle Obama and media mogul Oprah Winfrey. Over the next week, Klein sat down with both Fox News host Sean Hannity and Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs, who called The Amateur an “explosive new book pulling back the curtain on the Obama White House [and] painting a picture of amateurish leadership.”
The reason most networks aren’t calling may not be Klein’s rightward drift, as some conservatives claim, but rather his off-the-wall claims in several books over the last few years. Most notably, Klein suggested in his 2005 book, The Truth About Hillary, that Chelsea Clinton was conceived after former President Bill Clinton raped Hillary Clinton, a claim that prompted Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines to tell The Washington Post that the book is “full of blatant and vicious fabrications.” Five years later, Klein co-wrote a novel, The Obama Identity: A Novel (Or Is It?), using debunked conspiracy theories, like Obama being born outside the United States, as plotlines.
In reviewing Klein’s latest book, the New York Times’ Janet Maslin described Klein, who, in a previous journalistic life, edited the New York Times Magazine from 1977 to 1987, as an “inept, arrogant ideologue who maintains an absurdly high opinion of his own talents even as he blatantly fails to achieve his goals.”
In a July Washington Post profile of Klein, the White House dismissed The Amateur as “nonsense” while Reines dismissed the author as “a congenital liar.” On Aug. 17, Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt pushed back against Klein’s latest post-publication claim that the White House put out feelers about replacing Vice President Joe Biden on the ticket with Hillary Clinton.
“That information is about as credible as Mr. Klein’s book,” LaBolt said, during an interview on Fox News. “You know, [in] Mr. Klein’s latest book, he’s invented an entirely fictional dialogue that President Clinton and Secretary Clinton had in their home in Chappaqua where he wasn’t present. Everyone [has] denied the substance of that book.”
But Klein fashions himself as a truth-teller, offering the real story about how the elite media covers for its ideological allies in the Obama administration.
While he suggested in an interview that there’s a mainstream media conspiracy to not cover his book, he declined to discuss it with Huffington. But to sell a lot books Klein doesn’t have to speak to this publication, or any other that won’t simply reinforce his views.
There’s plenty that will.
WRITING FOR HISTORY
Author David Maraniss doesn’t think much of Klein’s book, which he describes as a “diatribe.” He acknowledges that Klein did some original reporting, but says the interviews were conducted “with an ideological perspective before he started.”
Maraniss admits to having his own ideology and biases, but, “that’s not what drives me as a journalist.” His job is to explain Obama and let the readers decide what they think about the man, he says.
Indeed, readers can walk away learning a lot more about Obama’s early life, since the book—which is likely to be followed by another volume—ends in 1988, when the future president enters Harvard Law School. Establishment media may focus more on this sweeping, multi-generation narrative, but some in conservative media have specifically zeroed in on parts that paint the Obama in a more negative light: details of youthful drug use and factual discrepancies with the president’s 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father.
When Maraniss was writing his 1995 biography of former President Bill Clinton, First in his Class, he recalls getting anonymous faxes from Clinton haters sent to his hotel in Little Rock, Ark., where he was staying at the time. Nowadays, criticism comes in the form of anonymous comments on, or blasts from, conservative news and opinion sites. In June, Breitbart editor-at-large John Nolte called Maraniss “a shill” who is “determined to downplay Obama’s lying.”
“I’m not in this to defend Obama,” Maraniss says. “I have my own questions about some of the ways he compressed and used composites in his book. I’m not defending that, but I’m trying to defend common sense.”
“He was writing a book from the lens of race. It shouldn’t be taken as rigorous factual autobiography.”
But although Obama’s memoir mentions the use of composites in the introduction, Politico treated Maraniss’ casual reference to Obama’s use of composite characters from an early excerpt in Vanity Fair as a headline-grabbing revelation. Drudge gave big play to the Politico item, thus starting a right-wing meme of the president being a fabricator. Although Politico later added a lengthy editor’s note to its post, the notion that the president lied in his memoir had spread.
“I sort of knew from the start of this book that it would be thrown in the maw of this bitterly divided and ideological political culture,” he says. “I can’t pretend to be naïve about it. I figured that would happen, but it is still unpleasant that it has.”
Even the Drudge-fueled conservative blogosphere reaction didn’t surprise him. “I knew the right wing would simultaneously dismiss the book as hagiography and then cherry-pick every negative thing they can from it,” he says.
Journalists are quick to praise his work even if it’s not atop the best-seller list. Slate’s David Weigel, who recently compared Klein’s bigger sales with Maraniss’, concluded that the “number of people who want their bitter views of Obama reinforced vastly outpaces the number who like Obama and want to understand him better.”
While Maraniss acknowledges that he has an ego like any writer, he says he’s not bothered by sales that are slower than Klein’s and other recent conservative books on the president, like David Limbaugh’s The Great Destroyer, which came out the same month as Maraniss’ and has racked up over three times as many sales, according to Nielsen BookScan.
He points out that his Clinton biography is still read by those trying to understand the former president. “I’m trying to write for history,” Maraniss says. “I’m not trying to write for the moment.”
HOW TO SELL A MILLION
Time senior national correspondent Michael Grunwald hopes to influence the current election year conversation on Obama’s 2009 stimulus package, providing more information about a piece of legislation derided by Republicans, barely discussed by Democrats this election year, and largely framed by the media as a boondoggle.
Of course, Grunwald would like to sell books, too, but tells Huffington that he doesn’t expect an overnight hit with a stimulus book, The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. Grunwald joked that he could have written a more inflammatory and sensational book called Porkulus, but that would only serve certain readers’ negative views on
“I could’ve written a book with no reporting that would have been utter bullshit and would have sold a million copies,” he says.
Before Grunwald’s book hit shelves Aug. 14, the author heard from his publisher, Simon & Schuster, that the best promotion in today’s marketplace is an on-air plaudit. He had never met MSNBC host Chris Hayes prior to appearing on his show Aug. 19, so the glowing introduction he received was a pleasant surprise.
The book is “fantastic” and “an absolute must-read,” Hayes told viewers. “All of you watching, right now, go to Amazon, go to Powell’s [a bookstore and website based in Oregon], go to [website] IndieBound, order it,” Hayes said.
Grunwald tells Huffington he’d be happy to go on Fox News—but that’s unlikely. While Grunwald’s book is no love letter to Obama, the Time reporter thoroughly investigates the impact of the stimulus package and argues that the much-maligned legislation produced meaningful change in clean energy, education reform, taxes, transportation and health care, while also helping to save the free-falling U.S. economy.
But even without a rave from conservative Hannity, which would be unlikely anyhow, the recommendation from Hayes got the word out and The New New Deal jumped nearly 200 spots—from 223 to 38—on Amazon before the credits rolled on the MSNBC weekend morning show.
‘HAGIOGRAPHY OR TAKEDOWN’
On Aug. 21, Amazon rolled out its Election Heat Map 2012, which allows users to see which books, both political “red” or “blue,” are the hottest sellers state-by-state. The map shows what’s been apparent for several years: Conservative books, especially those chock full of inflammatory rants against president, the Democratic establishment or the dreaded mainstream media, sell better than books catering to the left.
The following day, the Kindle edition of The Amateur held the top spot among “red” books, with the hardcover version ranking fifth. Leading from Behind, an anti-Obama book released Aug. 21 by conservative writer and former Washington Times editorial page editor Richard Miniter—and featuring a similar cover to The Amateur, complete with glum looking Obama against a black background—ranked sixth. The top 10 “red” books also included recently published anti-Obama books, Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream, by Dinesh D’Souza (Aug. 13) and Fool Me Twice: Obama’s Shocking Plans for the Next Four Years Exposed, by Aaron Klein and Brenda Elliot (Aug. 7).
It’s unlikely any single anti-Democratic or anti-Republican book can tip the election in November, but at least one book published during the summer heat of a national campaign—and driven by the media—arguably had some impact on perceptions of a presidential candidate. In August 2004, Regnery published Unfit for Command, by John O’Neill and Jerome Corsi, a book that was propelled by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group trying to undermine Democratic candidate John Kerry’s military record. Corsi returned in Aug. 2008 with The Obama Nation, which prompted the Obama campaign to issue a 40-page rebuttal, calling into question numerous salacious claims.
Even as the campaign and independent fact-checkers debunked claims, the book kept selling.
Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, says that “prolonged or intensive cable exposure sells books.” Tanenhaus pointed out that former Fox News host Glenn Beck helped propel various thrillers up the best-seller list, along with Frederik Hayek’s classic The Road to Serfdom and R.J. Pestritto’s Woodrow Wilson and American Progressivism.
While the New York Times was criticized for downplaying Klein’s book—columnist Cal Thomas claimed “ideological apartheid” on Fox News—the newspaper actually did review the book in the daily paper although not in the Sunday supplement, because the editors never received a galley of the book in advance of publication, Regnery confirms.
Tanenhaus says editors “always [make] judgment calls, and partisanship plays no role” in what makes it into the Review. He pointed out that The New New Deal also hasn’t been reviewed.
New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, whose book on the first family, The Obamas, was published in paperback in recent weeks, says that in this highly charged political atmosphere, books are often pigeonholed. With The Obamas, Kantor says there was “confusion about whether this was on the left or right, a Fox book or an MSNBC book.”
“One thing I learned is that people try to put your book in a box,” Kantor says. “It’s almost as if people expect either hagiography or takedown. And if you write something that’s neither, it can be hard to be heard.”
She didn’t write The Obamas to settle a partisan score or appeal only to readers on the left or the right, she says.
“I wanted to write my book because I thought the Obamas were changing before our eyes,” says Kantor, who interviewed them for the New York Times but didn’t score a sit-down for the actual book.
The White House pushed back aggressively on certain details of the book that immediately got the media’s attention—such as reported tensions between Michelle Obama and both the president’s campaign adviser Robert Gibbs and former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel—even though Kantor’s portrayal of the first family is largely flattering.
The first lady responded that Kantor’s description of her treatment of White House aides paints her as “some kind of angry black woman.” Obama, who early on is portrayed as uncomfortable in the White House, becomes more confident in her role as first lady as the book progresses. But the book also characterizes the couple’s marriage as strained by life in the White House, and Obama as so isolated that aides called the East Wing where her office was located “Guam—pleasant but powerless.”
The media, especially right-leaning outlets, seized on revelations in the book of an Alice in Wonderland-theme ball at the White House on Halloween 2009, thrown by actor Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton. The New York Post photoshopped Obama as the Mad Hatter, complete with front-page headline “Tweedle Dumb: Obama’s held secret ‘Wonderland' party during recession,” while The Drudge Report and talk radio host Rush Limbaugh fired on all cylinders.
But Kantor says picking apart single scenes or quotes in the book on air rather than reading through the narrative may give a false impression of the story. If a particular quote were tweeted, then blogged, then hashed out on cable news, it could give a very skewed perception of what the book’s about.
“The whole point of the book is complexity,” Kantor says. “If you wanted to say something simple about Obama, you’d write a tweet.”
This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.
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