Michael Lewis’ Article on the President Demonstrates by Example the Shallowness of Political Journalism

Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, gamingvulture.tumblr.com. And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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49 Responses

  1. James B Franks says:

    And the tone of your article once again demonstrates why most blogging is not journalismReport

    • I don’t understand your point, Mr. Franks, could you perhaps eludicate? Mr. Gach does not purport to be independently reporting facts; this essay is ab initio obviously commentary on Mr. Lewis’ writing, the Presidency as a subject of journalism, and political journalism in a generalized sense. The tone of the essay is entirely appropriate for the expression of the author’s opinions, which is all that the essay purports to be.Report

    • What tone is this? Was it an uncivil one? Was I too mean?

      Did you disagree with my interpretation? My argument? Or do you just not like what I wrote?

      Props for reading it though–defintely on the long side.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Dude, the tone was excellent. Very thoughtful. It’s a pity the first comment was an obscurantist naysayer. One might even think of him as a nattering nabob of negativism.Report

      • James B Franks in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        No, but the way I’m interpreting what you wrote, is that you read the original article. Formed an opinion on it; then cherry picked the parts that supported that. You even quote Michael Lewis at the beginning where he said he wanted to do a “fun” article then take him to task for it not being hard hitting journalism.Report

        • Exactly, because the very problems his insider piece gets at, with regard to how the media’s shallow sensationalism has chased the presidency underground (or up into the air) to a large degree, is something he himself is perpetuating.

          Also, on purely ethical grounds, I’m perfectly fine making the case (which I will make in depth if you double dog dare me) that if one is interviewing the President, one has a responsibility (civic, moral, personal) to be honest and not trade in BS.

          AND, if Lewis was serious about keeping the piece “Fun,” rather than just making it extremely fun to read (which is most definitely is) he wouldn’t have talked about such serious topics: see navigator shot down in foreign country, Columbine, the slaughter in Libya, the current crisis in Syria. He. Went. There.

          …and then sat on his hands once he arrived.

          As to cherry picking, I defy to you pick out anything from the article that offers strong evidence against the points I’m making. I didn’t even use half of the excerpts I was going to because the post had already gotten too long. Please, indulge me.Report

  2. North says:

    I’m sympathetic to your complaint; certainly Sully is quite in the tank for O; but you have left out the part where Congress and the detached polity it serves has very gladly ceded the authority you cite to the Presidency. It’s so much easier for the congresscritters to just let the President make those calls rather than put their own jobs on the line. It’s so much easier for the voters to just focus on the day to day than be concerned about this devolution and to vote to punish those who’re in essence slacking on their job in Congress.Report

    • Ethan Gach in reply to North says:

      And it’s so much easier to write a neat and tidy story about how the President plays basketball with the FBI and friends and has a special spot at the White House and a daydream of a perfect day on the beach surfing than to ask serious questions of a serious man when we are faced with so many serious issues.

      I take your point, and agree with all of it. As the point was to push back against the celebrity infused arse-kissing fest that was “Obama’s Way” I wanted to keep the focus on how the media is integral to keeping this shell game going, Including writers as beloved as Michael Lewis (a writer whose unprecedented success has clearly diluted the quality of his work).Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        This is a key distinction, and I’m glad you made it. I think it’s more productive to blame the system than to blame Obama for working within it, but Lewis does fail to issue that critique. Great piece.Report

  3. Winston Sterling says:

    Well written critique, Mr. Gach. I have been a big fan of Mr. Lewis since Liars’ Poker and think he is a truly gifted writer. However, he appears to have stepped beyond his capabilities here. Although I was unaware, he obviously is a left leaning writer and a big supporter of the Occupy movement. I think when you move into political circles it is important to be upfront with your positions so that the readers can gauge any intentional or inadvertant bias.
    He either needed to keep his article a fun, inside look at the President, or provide a more objective and balanced political assessment. Instead he ends up writing a glowing, partisan, uninspiring, political endorsement.
    In addition to ignoring larger questions like Presidential authority in the Libya actions as you point out, I was also bothered by the deceiving time lines. He appears to cover first hand the writing of the Nobel speech in Dec 2009(which I doubt was completely handwritten in the middle of the night), the Libya decision in March 2011, and the pickup basketball game(100 days from the election, or July 2012), all during his 6 month access period.
    He also pointed out the tight presidential schedule, but didn’t question the “self-discipline” of using precious time to appear on ESPN for mens and womens brackets(first Prez to do so), numerous late night TV appearances(including on the night of the embassy murders), endless airforce one trips to Hollywood fundraisers, and more golf than any other recent president.
    In the end, Mr Lewis is just a willing puppet that the administration used to further its PR and campaign efforts. He still does not realize that his “idea” was quickly accepted by the transparent administration, because of his bias and not his journalistic skills.Report

  4. MFarmer says:

    Average journalist: How difficult is it being the smartest person in the room in every room you enter, even rooms filled with geniuses? It must be a lonely experience.

    Obama: I’ve surrounded myself with some of the smartest people in politics. Michelle is much smarter than I am. I just want to help the middle class and those who suffer in the poverty created by Republican policies, but the economy left to me by the previous administration has held me back.

    Average journalist: I don’t know how you’ve accomplished what you’ve accomplished so far with the deep, deep, very deep recession you inherited. How did you do it?

    Obama: We’ve still got a ways to go, but 4.5 million jobs is a good start. We’re on our way.

    Average journalist: Yes sir, we are, thanks to your hard work and incredible intelligence. Do you think the next four years will transcend all that has come before, or do you think it will be among the top 2 recoveries of all time?

    Obama: I think we’ll be right up there, but I don’t want to get cocky, even though we’ve made very impressive gains, killed Osama bin Laden and saved the auto industry.

    Average journalist: I just don’t know how you do it, and such a great father on top of it all.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to MFarmer says:

      This strikes me as a sub-par journalist if not an outright suckup. But still, what questions would a superior journalist ask if granted access of the sort Mr. Lewis had?Report

      • Snarky McSnarkSnark in reply to Burt Likko says:

        “Would you prefer to destroy America with bombs, or with rhetoric?”Report

      • MFarmer in reply to Burt Likko says:

        “This strikes me as a sub-par journalist if not an outright suckup. But still, what questions would a superior journalist ask if granted access of the sort Mr. Lewis had”

        As if there’s a third option.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

        “When you were running for president, you said (this). Now, why hasn’t (this) happened?”

        While it’s likely that Obama will talk about the Republicans for a while, maybe he won’t.Report

      • BobbyC in reply to Burt Likko says:

        How about, from the left, (1) why have you not proposed immigration reform, (2) why have you not closed Guantanamo, (3) if you’ve recognized that we cannot achieve a concrete mission in AF then why don’t we bring our troops home, (4) why do we have military bases in Germany and Japan, (5) your health care reform entrenches the private health insurance companies by law, why isn’t that corporatism, and (6) if Republicans want to cut spending why don’t you propose cutting spending that makes no sense?

        How about, from the right, (1) why didn’t you use Simpson-Bowles to take the lead on entitlement reform and fiscal consolidation, (2) it was clear all of 2011 and 2012 that Republicans would have done tax reform if it were revenue neutral, why not pursue that immediately, (3) do you regret the $800bn stimulus bill given the continued weak economy and languishing job market, (4) you are running on your record of continued private sector job creation but that record is of job creation below the rate of population growth, so are you being dishonest when you tout that record as an accomplishment, (5) you have made ending the Bush tax rates for the wealthy a centerpiece of your contrast with Republican policy but our country taxes citizens’ income at 26.9% and spends 37.9% – ending those tax rates would make the numbers 27.4% and 37.9% – so how can you say that you are serious on addressing our fiscal problems unless you are willing to talk about how to close that gap, not just demagogue Republican plans, ignore bipartisan plans like Simpson-Bowles, and offer nothing of your own?Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to BobbyC says:

          For all the eye-rolling and charges of puff piece journalism by Michael Lewis, the original gist of this assignment was to duplicate the pieces done by Hersey back in the days of Harry Truman. Truman was a small town guy, one of the few presidents who didn’t have a college degree. I have several biographies of Truman. Hersey would go on to write one, himself.

          Truman was a hero to the men he’d commanded in WW1 but few people really knew him. First, he’d been seen a stooge for the old Pendergast Machine. He worked hard to overcome that stigma. Truman was a straight shooter: he reformed military procurement and readiness. He was far better connected into the Roosevelt administration than folks usually think: Harry Hopkins, one of FDR’s trusted advisers, a man whose power even Stalin understood, had long been Truman’s personal friend and political ally. The dying Hopkins tried to resign when FDR died and Truman wouldn’t let him.

          Hersey wrote his pieces in the New Yorker in 1950 after only a few days of tagging around with Truman. It was a very bad year, 1950. The Korean War had blown up, Joe McCarthy was at the height of his powers, all Truman’s efforts at rapprochement with the Republicans on foreign policy hadn’t brought about any consensus. The New Deal was now Old Hat. Truman’s numerous enemies were everywhere, even within his own party. Nobody realises how hard Truman pushed for civil rights, especially for returning veterans. Truman was hard done by: he never gets the credit he deserves, largely because so much of his governing style was deeply personal, working one on one with even his bitterest opponents. The floor had fallen out from under him, quite literally: the White House was in such terrible shape a floor collapsed and Truman had to move out.

          As a nation and a people, we look at the President in a two-point perspective, up the side of the skyscraper. We never get a true picture of the president as a human being. Obama’s enemies, like Truman’s are numerous and ubiquitous. Is it puff journalism to let go of the Shopping List mentality and allow the President to still be a real man? I don’t think so.

          I understand why you wrote this, Ethan. But to use the word Neutered is to miss the entire point. Who is Obama the man? Surely he is more than a Shopping List. All this tough-guy talk about how Lewis is part of the circus that promotes appearances over realities and trivialities over substance, where does that come from? For the record, it was Harry Truman who first proposed a White House Press Briefing Room in the West Wing. If the mechanism seems a bit stilted, the barking and tough questioning we now see, the Press Secretary sparring with the Ink-Stained Wretches at the White House and the weekly tradition of radio addresses, those were Truman innovations.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

            It’s not like Obama hadn’t written a couple of autobiographies, though.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

              Autobiography isn’t the same: the genre isn’t reporting.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

              I suppose we’ve all come to our own conclusions about Barack Obama over time. I castigated someone the other day for using the Google Says line of rhetoric because Google’s algorithms return the results based on what you’ve searched before.

              Every president has his own relationship with The Press but he also has relationships with individual reporters. How did Chris Hitchens describe Bob Woodward? “Stenographer to the rich and powerful” If Obama had wanted a nice comfy puff piece, he’d have gone with a Woodward type of journalist.

              Michael Lewis didn’t start out as a journalist: he spent time in the art world and as a bond trader. Everyone remembers him for Liar’s Poker and Moneyball, at least I do. He also wrote The Big Short, arguably the best book yet on the 2008 Meltdown. This man is no brown nose.

              Hopefully, without reading too much into this — why would Obama choose Michael Lewis over a dozen other journalists who’ve doubtless requested personal access? I believe it’s because Obama’s written autobiography and so has Michael Lewis in Liar’s Poker. Let’s cast this in the worst possible light: a narcissistic president wants to see what the writer of Liar’s Poker would say about him given a chance. A bit of daring hubris: Michael Lewis was not exactly kindly disposed to his old buddies at Salomon and was honest enough to admit how he got his job at Salomon: one of his cousins is a baroness and she arranged for Lewis to seated next to a Salomon big shot at some banquet. Salomon had already turned him down.

              Michael Lewis doesn’t write shallow, puff journalism in the traditional sense. If Obama had wanted that, he would have gone to Bob Woodward or a dozen other fawning idiots. I firmly reject these adjectives such as Shallow to describe this piece in Vanity Fair. I likewise scoff at those who would use such adjectives.Report

          • Ethan Gach in reply to BlaiseP says:

            I would love to read the original that inspired Lewis, unfortunately it’s behind the New Yorker’s archive pay wall.

            Perhaps I didn’t do a good job of addressing this in the post, but not only do I think it was puff, it was also not good at giving a feel for the Pres as person, as oppose to snap shots of the pres as person via reality tv style photo op.

            It’s to clean, to tidy, and deals more with the issues that confront the President then the person that has to wake up to them each day. Nothing about his two daughters for instance and balancing work with them.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Ethan Gach says:

              Can you point to any reporter who’s gotten into the family quarters to tell us which brand of toilet paper is in the Obamas’ bathroom? Nobody gets to talk to Michelle’s mom. Lots of people don’t realise she lives with the Obamas.

              There’s a gracious plenty of oppositional reporting on the Obama administration. This wasn’t Reality Teevee: we’ve got enough of that, too. Obama’s a bit of a Hamlet, I’ve said that before around here.

              There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
              Rough-hew them how we will.

              • Ethan Gach in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Not with the kids, talking about them. We get a view of President Obama, not Obama, who happens to be President.

                It’s an important difference. Not to mention, since so much has already been written, there is naturally going to be a higher bar.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Ethan Gach says:

                I simply do not understand why you’re taking this line. Barack Obama is more than his job but there’s no competency test for presidential candidates. Nor is there a rulebook for policy once elected. President Obama and Obama who happens to be President are perfectly commutative statements. He’s still a man, not a Futurama head-in-a-jar.

                When I interview people, I take a look at their qualifications before they get to me. But it’s not much of a guide to who they are as people. I can teach a chimpanzee to fire up an IDE and write code which compiles. People get hired on the basis of their abilities and they’re sacked on the basis of their personalities. To avoid that depressing moment of the inevitable sacking, I apply the second measure before I hire.

                A thousand jealous pundits wants to say this is a puff piece. It’s anything but a puff piece. Obama comes across as a calculating man, more in tune with the odds than managing by objective. That’s not how I manage but then running a software project isn’t exactly being a Chief Executive. Obama’s job is a lot bigger than one man. People get killed, even if he makes the right decision. He sits at the nexus of control, a civilian in charge of the world’s most powerful military engine. The military doesn’t dissent from his orders but a fickle public will never entirely agree with any decision he makes. That’s not a good place to be as an executive. The Roman Republic used to separate those roles. We don’t here in the USA. We like the idea of a civilian in charge of the military, lest the military commanders turn on the elected government.

                Alea jacta est, Julius Caesar’s famous statement when he crossed the Rubicon, defying the separation of powers. It’s usually translated “The die is cast.” But that’s wrong. Plutarch says Caesar shouted in Greek “Let the die be cast.” Baby needs a new pair of shooooooes…. The gamble paid off after a fashion, for Julius Caesar. Brutus and Cassius would have their roles to play somewhat later.

                The gamble for Libya might yet pay off for Obama. Michael Lewis’ account of the Libya decision making process is likely the most objective we’re likely to get in present times: the historians will have their say in years to come.Report

  5. wardsmith says:

    Ehtan, a thrill ran up my leg on reading your article.Report

  6. George Turner says:

    I think part of the point is that if a VF journalist had been given access by GW Bush and then written that piece, other “serious journalists” wouldn’t consider them a serious journalist anymore.

    He also skipped the most fundamental and nagging question about our system of government. If the White House is so important, how come we’ve never bothered to think up a name for it? We just gave up and started capitalizing it to avoid confusion.

    Now that’s serious political journalism.Report

  7. Roger says:

    Great commentary, Ethan. I really enjoyed the read. Thanks!Report

  8. Stillwater says:

    Helluva good post Ethan. The prose is tight and crisp, the argument is clear and well-made. Nicely done.Report

  9. MFarmer says:

    What historians will say about today’s intellectuals — “They were not serious thinkers.”Report

  10. BobbyC says:

    Ethan – regarding Michael Lewis’s article, I agree it’s a puff piece and utterly uninterested in asking tough questions or playing a journalistic role whatsoever. But is that such a problem? I felt like Lewis was pretty clear in the piece that he had a personal interest in understanding the job of the President, the day-to-day reality of being President. And he is pretty clear that he is personally fond of the President and uninterested in judging his performance as President in the article. I found the piece informative and interesting, much like the rest of Lewis’s writings. Lewis is at heart a storyteller, and a damn good one at that. This piece was the story of Obama and the job of President as consequential decision-maker simultaneously being the politician-in-chief in a time of unprecedented media coverage. I thought it was good and find your criticism to be misplaced – more relevant to the media at large, who are deserving of this scorn and more, but not fair to put on Michael Lewis. It’s not fair to call his project “neutered” because he wasn’t interested in pursuing the kind of tough professional journalism that this country needs.Report

    • E.C. Gach in reply to BobbyC says:

      So a couple of points:

      “the day-to-day reality of being President”—if this was really all he wanted to do he could have read any number of other profiles on the current as well as past Presidents, as well as watched the West Wing or any other fictional representation which, while embelished, probably gets the anxiety, tirelessness, and lack of kudos associated with the job pretty close. To put it another way, was there anything you read in the profile that made you think, “Wow, I never thought about the presidency like that?”

      “judging his performance “—is different from asking the President how he personally deals with all of the murky moral and and legal questions he must confront. The Libya decision is tough calculus as a President because of conflicting oblgications…but morally, it’s not very complicated, and any degree that it is, Michael seems content to let those nuanced and difficult moments fall through the cracks of his interviews. You don’t have to judge the President to ask him what it feels like to order a drone strike when one of the people it kills could look just like his daughter (in reference to his famous remark about Trayvon Martin). I am genuinly more curious about how HE feels about the decision, then I am about having Lewis try to condemn him for it…enough of us have already done that.

      “Lewis is at heart a storyteller”—indeed. Unfortunately telling a good story can get in the way of (1) telling the truth/being accurate/honesty/humble ignorance, and (2) letting the details and facts take you where they will, even if that place is not so condusive to a neat and tidy portrait of the President as an Wise man.

      “consequential decision-maker simultaneously being the politician-in-chief in a time of unprecedented media coverage.”—and yet the issue of whistleblower prosecutions and the drone program, two black holes of media coverage (i.e. they should be at the intersection of any story about the President and media, because the former has a chilling affect on independent journalism and the latter is secret and denied access to by the press).

      On Michael Lewis: When you are in a position to do an extended profile of a sitting President with prolongued and unprecedented access—use it wisely. Don’t tell us things we already know (trapping of the job: it’s tough, lots of decisions, always busy, hard to find time alone*), don’t use it to do an “Ain’t it tough being green?” piece…no shit being POTUS is a hard, lonely, and thankless job! Use the opportunity instead to write the truth, whatever it is, as you encounter it, but knowing full well the whole time that you won’t encounter truth by chance, you can sit around and wait for it, or look from afar waiting for it to pop out into the open on a whim…you have to tease it out, it can be uncomfortable, messy, and tiring, but that’s how you get a truth.

      The most uncomfortable moment in Michael’s piece was at the end, when he feels like he is intruding on the President’s alone time. It doesn’t come from a tough exchange with a man he ultimately respects and admires: it comes becuase he at long last has realized, on some level, the superficiality of what he’s doing. He actually feels like he’s wasting the President’s time by the end. The only person responsible for his feeling that way his himself.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to E.C. Gach says:

        Nowhere in the essay was a cite the article itself. Seems to me Lewis did a fine job laying out how Obama thought about intervention in Libya at the time. He goes into excruciatingly precise detail of what went through Obama’s mind and those around him. It’s the bulk of the article. Since you won’t cite it, I guess I have to — :

        A million people in Ben­gha­zi were waiting to find out whether they would live or die, and he honestly did not know. There were things the Pentagon might have said to deter him, for instance. “If somebody had said to me that we could not take out their air defense without putting our fliers at risk in a significant way; if the level of risk for our military personnel had been ratcheted up—that might have changed my decision,” says Obama. “Or if I did not feel Sarkozy or Cameron were far enough out there to follow through. Or if I did not think we could get a U.N resolution passed.”

        Once again he polled the people in the room for their views. Of the principals only Susan Rice (enthusiastically) and Hil­lary Clinton (who would have settled for a no-fly zone) had the view that any sort of intervention made sense. “How are we going to explain to the American people why we’re in Libya,” asked William Daley, according to one of those pres­ent. “And Daley had a point: who gives a shit about Libya?”

        From the president’s point of view there was a certain benefit in the indifference of the American public to whatever was happening in Libya. It enabled him to do, at least for a moment, pretty much whatever he wanted to do. Libya was the hole in the White House lawn.

        Obama made his decision: push for the U.N resolution and effectively invade another Arab country. Of the choice not to intervene he says, “That’s not who we are,” by which he means that’s not who I am. The decision was extraordinarily personal. “No one in the Cabinet was for it,” says one witness. “There was no constituency for doing what he did.” Then Obama went upstairs to the Oval Office to call European heads of state and, as he puts it, “call their bluff.” Cameron first, then Sarkozy. It was three a.m. in Paris when he reached the French president, but Sarkozy insisted he was still awake. (“I’m a young man!”) In formal and stilted tones the European leaders committed to taking over after the initial bombing. The next morning Obama called Medvedev to make sure that the Russians would not block his U.N. resolution. There was no obvious reason why Russia should want to see Qad­da­fi murder a city of Libyans, but in the president’s foreign dealings the Russians play the role that Republicans currently more or less play in his domestic affairs. The Russians’ view of the world tends to be zero-sum: if an American president is for it, they are, by definition, against it. Obama thought that he had made more prog­ress with the Russians than he had with the Republicans; Medvedev had come to trust him, he felt, and believed him when he said the United States had no intention of moving into Libya for the long term. A senior American official at the United Nations thought that perhaps the Russians let Obama have his resolution only because they thought it would end in disaster for the United States.

        And it could have. All that exists for any president are the odds. On March 17 the U.N. gave Obama his resolution. The next day he flew to Brazil and was there on the 19th, when the bombing began. A group of Democrats in Congress issued a statement demanding Obama withdraw from Libya; Ohio Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich asked if Obama had just committed an impeachable offense. All sorts of people who had been hounding the president for his inaction now flipped and questioned the wisdom of action. A few days earlier Newt Gingrich, busy running for president, had said, “We don’t need the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening.” Four days after the bombing began, Gingrich went on the Today show to say he wouldn’t have intervened and was quoted on Politico as saying, “It is impossible to make sense of the standard of intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity.” The tone of the news coverage shifted dramatically, too. One day it was “Why aren’t you doing anything?” The next it was “What have you gotten us into?” As one White House staffer puts it, “All the people who had been demanding intervention went nuts after we intervened and said it was outrageous. That’s because the controversy machine is bigger than the reality machine.”

        The minute the president made his decision a lot of people were obviously waiting for it to go wrong—for something to happen that could be seized upon to symbolize this curious use of American power and define this curious president. On March 21, Obama flew from Brazil to Chile. He was on a stage with Chilean leaders, listening to a folk-rock band called Los Jaivas singing the story of the earth’s formation (their signature piece) when someone whispered in his ear: one of our F-15s just crashed in the Libyan desert. On his way to dinner afterward his national-security adviser Thomas Donilon told him that the pilot had been rescued but the navigator was missing. “My first thought was how to find the guy,” recalls Obama. “My next thought was that this is a reminder that something can always go wrong. And there are consequences for things going wrong.”Report

  11. damon says:

    Good commentary.

    If it’s not hard hitting reporting, it’s a puff piece. Since no admin is willing to actually sit down for hard questions, by default, it’s a puff piece.Report

  12. Kimmi says:

    He wouldn’t have felt that way with Clinton. Clinton always did love juggling things, being in the action. Not a person to sit still, though in his own way quietly decisive.Report