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All the Dirt that's Fit to Print

Jerry Lanson

Once again those intrepid investigative reporters at The New York Times are hard at work.This morning's above-the-fold, front-page expose: How much marijuana did Barack Obama really smoke in high school and college? Apparently, not enough.

After snooping around for classmates of Obama in high school and college, The Times seems concerned that the presidential candidate does not seem to have been as stoned out 30 years ago as readers of his book, Dreams from My Father, might have thought.

How's that for a hard-hitting revelation?

Writes The Times Serge Kovaleski: "Mr. Obama's account of his younger self and drugs ... significantly differs from the recollections of others. That could suggest he was so private about his (drug) use that few people were aware of it, that the memories of those who knew him decades ago are fuzzy or rosier out of a desire to protect him, or that he added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic."

Of course, it also could suggest that Mr. Kovaleski and The New York Times editors should consider doing some real reporting -- on real issues -- instead of ruminating mindlessly about what is a non-story to start.

Does The Times' brass really believe this kind of ungrounded guesswork is ethical reporting -- that this kind of Rupert Murdochian rumor-mongering belongs in a paper that once bragged it published only "all the news that's fit to print?"

Let's see. There must be something more newsworthy out there.

Perhaps The Times should try analyzng how the campaigns are positioning themselves for the final push in a Democratic primary campaign that is neck and neck. Perhaps it should look in depth at who is pouring all that money into the coffers of the rival campaigns. Or then again, it could re-examine other stories that regularly appear and disappear these days without resolution, stories such as whether the United States is continuing the covert practice of extraordinary rendition - kidnapping people off the street and whisking them away to prisons in third-world dictatorships.


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But no. It seems Obama's reefer madness ... NOT ... is more important. Mr. Kovaleski digs deep. He notes that he interviewed three dozen "friends, classmates and mentors" from Obama's Hawaiian high school and Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Why he bothered, given Obama's own brief acknowledgement in his book of youthful indiscretion, is a serious question in itself. This very tired story already has led to the resignation of Hillary Clinton's campaign co-chair in New Hampshire for a snide comment about the drug connection and loud complaints about another prominent Clinton supporter for his remarks about Obama in South Carolina.

What's more extraordinary, however, is that after investigating this story and finding essentially nothing new worth writing about, The Times invented a theory, out of thin air and thinner evidence, that questions Obama's integrity. That, quite simply, is bad journalism. Really bad journalism.

Of course, Mr. Kovaleski couldn't have written this conjecture unless his editors had allowed him to. So let me ask them: Why would a man with aspirations to be president some day write a book in which he exaggerates his childhood drug use? Hmmm. Good question.

The answer: It defies logic.

But then, so does the entire premise of The Times article.

Jerry Lanson is an associate professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He can be reached at

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