by Laura Sillerman | bio

The New York Times last Saturday ran a page-one, above-the-fold article with the headline "Old Friends Say Drugs Played Bit Part in Obama’s Young Life." If you haven’t read it by now, know that it is much ado about nearly nothing. It is a story that attempts to add fuel to a non-existent fire.

What should burn bright, however, is a discriminating sense toward political news stories, particularly those that promise to show the "human side" of the candidates.

Just to recap, the Times reviews Barack Obama’s discussion of drug use, as referenced in his 1995 memoir, "Dreams From My Father," and in a speech Obama gave to high school students in New Hampshire last November in which he acknowledged making "some bad decisions" involving drugs and drinking.

The Times points out that the book was written before Obama ran for office, leaving one to wonder if the reporter meant to raise doubt about Obama’s candor. The paragraph that begins just before the jump makes the intent more clear:

Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs, though, significantly differs from the recollections of others who do not recall his drug use. That could suggest he was so private about his usage that few people were aware of it, that the memories of those who knew him decades ago are fuzzy or rosier out of a desire to protect him, or that he added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he over came seem more dramatic.

Since when does the Times speculate on the front page? 

Such speculation could suggest that the Times is trying to find a story where there is none. The headline alone could suggest that the Times is hinting that those close to a presidential candidate are trying to protect him.

As the article goes on, readers could get the impression that the Times is chastising this candidate for not using drugs as he implied. The story quotes a man who spent seven years in and out of prison for drug offenses. His recollection is that "Mr. Obama did not smoke marijuana during the two years they spent time together even though it was readily available."

This is a character flaw? This counts as front page news?

It’s old news that Obama experimented with drugs and alcohol. It’s no news that people don’t remember it.

The Times notes that the story is part of a series of articles about the lives and careers of presidential nominees (actually, the quotation is "about the life and careers," a grammatical error). If it’s going to be more of this tabloid trash, they can scrap the series now, as far as I am concerned. Regardless of whom you support — and, for the record, I didn’t vote for Obama — it’s imperative that we demand better political coverage.

We turn to the nation’s respected newspapers for facts, and we welcome opinion on the pages specifically dedicated to it. We can learn from both, but we must implore those who seek to profit from our search for truth that they don’t mix — not even a little. Speculation has no place in reporting, unless it is within quotation marks, and, even then, a good editor should question the source and the news value.

A college kid who was in step with his generation and apparently aflame with dedication to social justice was or was not in touch with the part of himself that was confused and vulnerable to outside influences. A human being is running for president.

I say bravo to that and to what it means for the rest of us. And shame on The New York Times for implying anything else.

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  • Dr. Pat Allen February 17, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    I do not watch television news or shows masterminded by a talk show host with a political bent or those intrusive round-table “discussions” among a group of hacks who make their living disagreeing and being disagreeable about issues that belong in the realm of civil discourse about civic issues of enormous urgency.
    I fear that our population, not trained to listen to the undercurrent of manipulation and speculation, is so disillusioned and suspicious of the reasons that these media rants exist that they have become hardened and deaf to the noise that has become the currency of political pundits and their handmaidens, the media.
    I read 4 newspapers a day and weekly and monthly news magazines and journals to discover who I believe to be the leaders who have the intelligence, experience, temperament and character to steady our ship of state in these turbulent waters.
    We must expect more at least from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times than from US and InStyle magazine. We must decry with voices loud and unceasing that we do not want opinions or speculation. We want narrative writing with facts and even with an acknowledged point of view perhaps; but facts, not subversive manipulation.
    It is time that thoughtful people examine the increasingly influential role that media of all types play in our political lives. We at Women’s Voices for Change believe that women in our community are hip to this jive. We are putting big media on notice.
    Speculate about style not substance. Go on and on about the lives of actors, but limit your criticism of the performance so that we can make up our minds about the play after we have seen it. And, follow our leaders and candidates for public office carefully. Push them for substance and plans not promises.
    But do not discuss the candidates’ marriages or spouses unless they pose a security risk to the nation. Do not discuss youthful indiscretions. You may be talking but your audience is dwindling. Have you noticed?

  • naomi dagen bloom February 16, 2008 at 9:59 am

    laura does a real service here in questioning major media — here the new york times. we need to speaking out more often and in louder voices about what has happened to straight reporting.
    some of us are old enough to remember a time when every story on the front page of the times did NOT have a byline and was NOT an overwritten “opinion” piece. what do we fear in speaking out? being called “old fashioned”? but we are!