To Protect Obama, a Journalist Excuses Lies

Journalists fashion themselves to be guardians of truth, but Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen is bending over backwards to excuse Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama for lying in his autobiography. 

In his March 27 column, Cohen acknowledges that a Chicago Tribune investigation of Obama's best-selling memoir, Dreams From My Father, “found both trivial and substantial differences between the stories Obama tells and those recalled by others.”

The most striking whopper?  Obama wrote that as a nine-year-old, his life was forever changed by a Life magazine article about a black man who suffered “disaster” after using chemicals to whiten his skin.  “I felt my face and neck get hot,” Obama wrote.  “My stomach knotted; the type began to blur on the page.”

Powerful stuff – but it turns out Life never published any such article.  When the Tribune pointed this out to Obama, the candidate suggested the magazine was Ebony.  No such article in Ebony's archives, either.  Nevertheless, Cohen quotes Obama saying the moment, even if it never actually happened, “permanently altered” his “vision.”

Cohen injects a weak cautionary sentence near the end of his column: “This tendency to manipulate facts may bear watching in Obama.” But Cohen's sop to integrity is far outweighed by his efforts to explain away Obama's falsehoods.  He suggests that Obama may be “manipulating the facts in order to wrap raw ambition in the gauze of a larger cause.”  Cohen even proposes a rationale few philosophers, or journalism professors, would embrace:  that “emotional truth” trumps “intellectual truth.”

 “Two and two are four,” writes Cohen.  “That's an intellectual truth for you.  But America is a uniquely great country.  That's an emotional truth, and I'm far more likely to die for the latter than the former.”

For the record, Webster's Dictionary defines “truth” as “being true; sincerity, honesty, conformity with fact, reality; actual existence, correctness; accuracy; an established fact.”  Emotion has nothing to do with it.

To most objective observers, Obama's childhood angst story would have brought to mind 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's “seared – seared into me” memory of operating his Swift Boat beyond the Cambodian border, which was conclusively disproven by other Swift Boat vets.  Even closer would be President Bill Clinton's tale about being moved as a child by the torching of black churches in Arkansas, though history records no such churches being burned down while Clinton was growing up.  Instead, Cohen compares Obama to a different member of the Democratic pantheon: 

“But while [Obama's] book is a warning flag, it is also an astounding display of a supple, first-class mind – not merely a bright fellow, but an insightful one, and the single best piece of writing by a politician since John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage.”

Cohen does his best to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.  It is no wonder that a recent Zogby poll found that 83 percent of likely voters believe bias is “alive and well” in the press, and nearly three-quarters of those people believe the bias is liberal.  No longer is it safe to assume that journalists care about the truth when a favored politician's reputation is on the line. 

Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor and Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute (, a division of the Media Research Center.