Friday, August 1, 2008

Obama's Thesis and He-Said, She-Said "Journalism"

Last week when I was nosing around for reaction's to Obama's Berlin speech, I came across this gem at MSNBC:
Conservative provocateurs have been hunting for it. Investigative journalists have been on the prowl, too. Even a former professor has been searching through old boxes for his copy of it. But today Barack Obama made it official: He doesn’t have and can’t release any copies of the thesis-length paper he wrote 25 years ago while a senior at Columbia University. “We do not have a copy of the course paper you requested and neither does Columbia University,” Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt told NBC News.
Oh dear. I have copies of student final exams going back a few years. The reason for this is not that I'm obliged to keep them; they can be thrown out after a year. No, it's that my students are generally unmotivated to pick them up once the new term starts, and I'm lazy about cleaning my office. I suppose I'll toss them when I move in my new office at the end of August.

As for actual papers? They go back to my students, with copious but often illegible comments. I make a copy if I suspect plagiarism. Otherwise, I don't keep them on file.

Any professor who'd keep a paper - and that's what this is, a lengthy paper, not a master's or doctoral thesis - for 25 years would need a much bigger office than mine.

But here's how MSNBC reports it. The story begins reasonably enough, telling of a "right-wing hit-man," David Bossie, who's been trying to dig up the thesis. Here's the ad he's been running in newspapers:

Image via MSNBC, reproduced here under fair use provisions of U.S. copyright law.

MSNBC then quotes Obama's former professor from the honors seminar he took on U.S. foreign policy, Michael Baron, who remembers Obama as a stellar student. Remarkably, Baron thinks he actually kept a copy of the thesis paper until eight years ago - but he then trashed it while moving house.

So on one level, the MSNBC report appears to be debunking wingnut rumors. But it's playing an ugly double game. Consider this header:
The dog ate my homework?
And then there's the article's ending, which gives Bossie the final word:
Case closed?

So is that it? Is the Case of the Missing “Thesis” over?

Not so fast, Sherlock.

“If Obama says he doesn't have a copy, I would have to call him a liar,” declared David Bossie, the conservative activist. “Obama has it or knows where it is but no one has pressed him seriously for it,” Bossie said.

In other words, for some, the search continues.
There's a convention in American journalism which requires only that "both sides" of a story be told. This passes as objectivity, no matter how bat-shit loony one side may be. At best, MSNBC is engaging in this he-said, she-said type of journalistic "ethics." (Jon Swift took the piss out of this better than anyone else so far.)

At worst, MSNBC is throwing its weight behind Bossie, becoming complicit with the right-wing hit-men. The fact that the article ends with his words gives some credence to this intepretation.

Either way, this is horseshit, not real journalism. What I learned from this article can be easily summed up:
  1. Obama was a more diligent college student than I (who refused to write an honors thesis because it would have required sustained effort).
  2. Obama nurtured an interest in the Soviet Union and arms control (not a bad thing in a future president).
  3. Obama's former prof sounds like a super-nice guy.
  4. Bossie sounds like a world-class Arschloch. (Some of the translations behind the link are rather loose, but all of them apply.)
  5. MSNBC is no better than Faux News.


jfpbookworm said...

Hell, I graduated law school in 2002, put my major writing project up on my university web site, and it's gone. And this was one I was proud of, and have actively looked for since then because hey, it was about moderating online forums and is therefore relevant to my interests. ( is no good, because it was in PDF form.) And people expect Obama to keep a 25-year-old thesis (on a superpower that no longer even exists in the form described in the paper)?

Sungold said...

How the heck could the university do that? I can't believe they didn't keep backups of backups. Then again, I work at a university that had a major IT scandal a couple of years ago - multiple hacker break-ins resulted in students' and employees' personal data being stolen, including social security numbers. So I guess your experience isn't so surprising after all.

Did you not have a copy of your own? I can imagine trusting the university to keep it online. But oh, it's galling that your work just disappeared.