Obama's Composite Girlfriend: How Politico and Drudge Created Fake News

An inadequately fact-checked news item leads to a fabricated claim that the president fabricated and lied about parts of his memoir.

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Obama for America

One reason why fake news is so pervasive, so easy to spread, and so hard to debunk is that it almost always has some sort of basis in reality. For example, real-life end-of-life consultation becomes "death panels." Because debunkers have to explain the complex reality in detail, the simpler but false version never gets dislodged. But it's not often that we get to see just how the fake-news sausage gets made.

Today was an exception -- we can trace exactly how the false claim that Obama lied about his college girlfriends in his memoir got started. Rock-star journalist and presidential biographer David Maraniss has uncovered new information about President Obama, which he's publishing in a forthcoming book. Vanity Fair has published an excerpt from the book, which focuses on Obama's college girlfriends. Maraniss managed to contact Genevieve Cook, who dated the future president at Columbia University, and she turned over her diary to him. It's an interesting look at the young Obama, and there are some cringeworthy revelations -- first and foremost, that Obama responded to "I love you" with "thank you" (though really, what college guy isn't afraid of commitment?) and, even worse, some just awful, pretentious, gibberish analysis of T.S. Eliot. The Atlantic Wire has more on the excerpt.

All well and good. Here's where things go wrong: Politico media reporter Dylan Byers wrote a post, timestamped 12:08 p.m., with the headline, "Obama: 'New York girlfriend' was composite." Here are the first two paragraphs:

One of the more mysterious characters from President Obama's 1995 autobiography Dreams From My Father is the so-called 'New York girlfriend.' Obama never referred to her by name, or even by psuedonym, but he describes her appearance, her voice, and her mannerisms in specific detail.

But Obama has now told biographer David Maraniss that the 'New York girlfriend' was actually a composite character, based off of multiple girlfriends he had both in New York City and in Chicago.

Sounds like a pretty big deal, right? While the authors of literary memoirs are sometimes cut some slack, it'd be major news if the president of the United States was just now admitting that a character in his highly lauded, bestselling autobiography was fabricated, and only after being caught red-handed.

If you read Dreams From My Father (embarrassing disclosure: I have not), you may have already gotten to the punchline: Obama is clear at the start of the book that certain characters are composites, writing, "For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I've known, and some events appear out of precise chronology." Someone eventually pointed this out to Byers, and Politico added this doozy of an update-and-correction at the bottom:

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.

That's misleading; both of those are really corrections. Taken together, they fundamentally undermine the premise of the item. While it's obviously right for Politico to have updated the item, it's really not enough. The article is the most popular one on their site as of writing; it's been shared nearly 2,000 times on Facebook and tweeted more than 600 times. But there's no indication that it has been updated -- to say nothing of practically debunked -- until the reader reaches the very end of post. Realistically, many of them will not. This laxity and haste makes Politico look like a partisan operation like the Daily Caller -- which it's not (ironically, Byers proudly noted just this week how centrist Politico's audience is.).

Presented by

David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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