October 17, 2008

REMEMBER HOW FORTHCOMING THE LAST DEMOCRAT WAS?:

Michelle and Me: The trials of being an Obama biographer (Liza Mundy, Oct. 14, 2008, Slate)

Back in June, the New York Times ran a front-page piece about Michelle Obama. A few months earlier, she had made her now-famous comment about how this election was the first time in her adult life that she'd been really proud of her country and become the target of a vast Internet conspiracy to portray her as anti-patriotic and full of racial animus. The Times piece was about the campaign's efforts to soften her image, and in it, Michelle expressed astonishment at the vitriol directed her way, venturing that anyone who spent time with her would know that's not what she is about. "I will walk anyone through my life," she declared.

As it happened, that very day I was in Chicago trying to get people to walk me through what they knew of her life, and the campaign was making it extremely difficult. Among the contacts I tried to make was Michelle's first cousin once removed Capers Funnye Jr., whose mother was the sister of Michelle's paternal grandfather. Funnye is a friendly man with his own story, a convert to Judaism who became a rabbi. I'd called earlier to ask him about the Robinson family history, and when he didn't call back, I'd driven to his Chicago synagogue. He opened the door and, when I told him who I was, looked regretful. He loves to talk, but he'd checked with the campaign, and they had asked him not to give an extended interview.

Around the same time, I called a pastor on Chicago's South Side who knew Michelle. "I was instructed by the campaign to let them know when you called me," he said, explaining that he received an advance message asking him not to discuss Michelle with any book author because they were "not ready for people who knew Michelle to talk about her."

Why should you care about one writer's shaggy-dog story? In one sense, none of this is tragic; every reporter knows that being denied access to the usual contacts means you dig harder and turn up new voices. But you should care if you are expecting an Obama presidency to achieve new levels of transparency. Obama, if elected, may well bring many changes to Washington, but unusually open access to the media—and, by extension, the public—is not necessarily going to be one of them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 17, 2008 7:36 PM
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