A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
When Barack Obama and his editors at Penguin Random House’s Crown Publishing picked this week to publish the first volume of his memoirs, “A Promised Land,” they hoped that the election results would be clear, that Obama’s vice president Joe Biden would be busy with transition work, and that there wouldn’t be any widespread unrest.
They turned out to be right on all three counts: Tuesday is a wide-open launchpad for Obama’s book, which is expected to be the best-selling title of the year, just as Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” was in 2018.
But they also expected that Obama and the memoir would be competing for attention with President Trump, and that’s true too. Trump is continuing to thrash around on Twitter, saying “I concede nothing” and spreading lies about widespread fraud. So Obama’s interviews and public appearances are about his time in office, yes, but they’re also about Trump’s misconduct, and about whether Biden will be able to restore any normalcy. Judging from his comments so far, Obama is clearly concerned that the information universe has changed in ways that are destabilizing to democracy. Let’s take a look…
“The single biggest threat to our democracy”
On Monday morning The Atlantic is publishing Jeffrey Goldberg’s wide-ranging interview with Obama. In it, Obama talks about the “common narrative” provided by past anchors like Walter Cronkite, back when broadcast towers and printing presses limited who could be heard and when.
“I come out of this book very worried about the degree to which we do not have a common baseline of fact and a common story,” he told Goldberg. “We don’t have a Walter Cronkite describing the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination but also saying to supporters and detractors alike of the Vietnam War that this is not going the way the generals and the White House are telling us. Without this common narrative democracy becomes very tough.”
Later in the interview, Goldberg asked, “Is this new malevolent information architecture bending the moral arc away from justice?”
“I think it is the single biggest threat to our democracy,” Obama said. “I think Donald Trump is a creature of this, but he did not create it. He may be an accelerant of it, but it preceded him and will outlast him. I am deeply troubled by how we address it.”
The genie is gone
In the interview, Obama exhibited his familiarity with nightmares like QAnon and a realist attitude toward the near-future. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he told Goldberg. “You’re not going to eliminate the internet, you’re not going to eliminate the thousand stations on the air with niche viewerships designed for every political preference. Without this it becomes very difficult for us to tackle big things. It becomes hard for us to say, ‘Hey, we have a pandemic here, it’s deadly; it’s serious; let’s put partisanship aside; let’s listen to Anthony Fauci because he’s been studying stuff like this for a long time. We may not get everything exactly right, because science works iteratively, but let’s hew as closely as we can to the science. Let’s do what science tells us to do to save lives.’ That becomes harder to do.”
The interview is available on TheAtlantic.com…
Obama’s other interviews
His sit-down with Gayle King aired on “CBS Sunday Morning.” She asked, “Seventy-two million people voted for Donald Trump. What does that say to you about the state of this country?”
“Well, what it says is that we are still deeply divided,” Obama said. “The power of that alternative worldview that’s presented in the media that those voters consume, it carries a lot of weight.”
The media also came up repeatedly in Obama’s interview with Scott Pelley on “60 Minutes.” This quote stood out: “I think we’re going to have to work with the media and with the tech companies to find ways to inform the public better about the issues and to – bolster the standards that ensure we can separate truth from fiction. I think that we have to work at a local level.” He’s right that the local level is “where we have to start in terms of rebuilding the social trust we need for democracy to work.”
>> Coming up: Obama’s next interview is with NPR’s Michel Martin… Excerpts will air throughout the day on Monday…
>> Oprah Winfrey’s conversation with the former POTUS will come out on Apple TV+ on Tuesday…