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

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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.).

Mistakes happen. In a time-crunched journalism world, there's pressure to crank posts out at high speed, and sometimes that leads to incomplete vetting of material (Dean Starkman wrote a fantastic story in the Columbia Journalism Review about this problem two years ago). But it would be nice for Politico to make their correction far more visible.

Of course, there are plenty of folks who aren't even that scrupulous. The story blew up after influential yellow journalist Matt Drudge posted the item on his website. Here's a screen capture of his banner headline, via Business Insider's Brett LoGiurato:

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And it only gets worse from there. Rush Limbaugh cited Byers' item extensively on the air on Wednesday, somehow managing to link him with Charles Barkley, imply that Obama would be willing to commit perjury, and openly call the president a liar.

Well, in an autobiography, if you're gonna invent characters -- in an autobiography, if you're going to invent characters -- and then only admit you invented them after people have tried to find them... You know, he invents this Genevieve babe and people can't find her. She didn't exist. (interruption) Well, I haven't read it.

Anyone surprised he hasn't read it? Bueller?

In any case, what Limbaugh says is clearly false. The composite characters were acknowledged in the front material for the book. For once, we can maybe give Limbaugh the benefit of the doubt -- after all, he was just following the news reports. But it's a safe bet there won't be a correction forthcoming from Limbaugh tomorrow, not even at the very end of his show.

In this case, Politico has served as an unwitting pawn in a game conservative spinmeisters are playing to redefine Obama between now and November. It's just the same as the Derrick Bell controversy, in which Breitbart.com took a previously viewed clip of a well-known incident and then claimed it was new and proved Obama's radicalism; it's much the same as the flap over Obama eating dog, in which a different piece of Dreams From My Father, in which he describes eating canine meat as a boy in Indonesia, was rediscovered. While conservative activists and journalists present these stories while claiming that Obama wasn't properly vetted four years ago, what's actually happening is they're reintroducing facts to the record, this time with a far more negative spin. Keep that copy of Dreams close by: As these claims crop up throughout the campaign, you're likely to have many occasions to refer to it.

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Presented by

David A. Graham

David 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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