The Court Reporters

Column: The New York Times fails its readers—and the country

August 2, 2013

I have been studying the transcript of the recent New York Times interview of President Barack Obama. It is a remarkable document—remarkable not for the facts it contains, but for the way it reveals the mentalities of the participants. Remarkable, too, in so far as the transcript allows a curious reader to see, in detail, how journalism is manufactured. Through a process of extraction, distillation, production, transportation, and marketing no less sophisticated than the global supply chain that brings Southeast Asian textiles to your neighborhood big-box store, a rambling, snobbish, and platitudinous discussion between three well-compensated Washingtonians is transformed into "news" stories such as "Obama Says Income Gap Is Fraying U.S. Social Fabric," "Obama Says He’ll Evaluate Pipeline Project Depending on Pollution," and—in a brilliant but assuredly non-ironic instance of begging the question—"Obama Intends to Let Health Care Law Prove Critics Wrong by Succeeding."

I use quotation marks to surround the word "news" because none of the stories that resulted from the Times interview contained information I did not already know. Income inequality has been the president’s justification for higher taxes and spending since at least 2005, when he spoke at Galesburg, Ill., for the first time as a senator. Earlier this summer, in a ballyhooed speech at Georgetown University, he announced the criteria by which he would decide the fate of the Keystone Pipeline. "Proving the critics wrong by succeeding" is more of an aspiration than a thought or deed: a form of self-assertion, a challenge to opponents, a boast—the mental equivalent of listening to amped-up music before Coach O delivers a motivational speech to the team.

A sort of pep talk to the liberal bourgeoisie, Democrat and Republican, is what the New York Times under Jill Abramson has become. One reads it to confirm rather than challenge one’s perceptions of the world. No mystery what those perceptions are: The Republicans are no good, the president is doing the best he can, equality marches on, America is powerless to influence other countries, illegal immigration has no downside, the government should not be trusted except when it regulates the economy, "institutional" (i.e., invisible) racism plagues contemporary society, traditional religion is a curiosity, etc. Reading the transcript of the president’s interview is valuable because it allows you to see just how self-contained the bobo world is. The paper and its intended audience, in this case the president, form a closed circuit.

My favorite moment is when the president mentions someone he’s been talking to. "I had a conversation a couple of weeks back with Robert Putnam," Obama says, "who I’ve known for a long time." Putnam is a renowned sociologist, and the ability to drop his name is a requirement for membership in elite circles. What makes this name-drop special is that Obama not only assumes the reporters know who Putnam is, he amplifies his snobbery by mentioning that the author of Bowling Alone and American Grace has been a personal acquaintance for years, as though that in itself is an achievement, as though that somehow makes the sentence he is about to utter more meaningful.

Just then, though, one of the Times reporters, Michael D. Shear, interrupts the president and says what has to be one of the most beautiful and revealing sentences ever to appear on "He was my professor actually at Harvard." Almost every word of this sentence is an act of social positioning worthy of Castiglione. "My" conveys ownership, possession, and intimacy; the "actually" is a subtle exercise in one-upmanship, implying a correction of fact or status, and suggesting that Shear, who seems to have taken a course with Putnam while pursuing a graduate degree at the Kennedy School, is on closer terms with him than the president of the United States of America; and of course the big H, "Harvard," before whose authority all must bow down.

The president’s response is just as priceless. "Right," he says, pausing, and one can easily imagine the look of annoyance on his face as he reacts to Shear’s gratuitous lunge into the spotlight. He then makes it clear exactly who is in charge. "I actually knew Bob"—note that it’s "Bob" we’re talking about now—"when I was a state senator and he had put together this seminar to just talk about some of the themes that he had written about in ‘Bowling Alone,’ the weakening of the community fabric and the impact it’s having on people." Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mike.

The "Peter Principle," which holds that individuals rise to the precise level where they are incompetent, is well known. But it is time to coin the Putnam Principle, which I take to hold that the number of softball questions a reporter asks is in direct proportion to the power of the Democrat to whom he is speaking. If the reporter is talking to a Republican, conservative or liberal, he will be as adversarial as possible. But a Democratic congressman is far more likely to receive scrutiny than Nancy Pelosi. And on average Pelosi will have to answer tougher questions than the president. There are exceptions: Ed Henry, Jonathan Karl, and, when he was White House correspondent, Jake Tapper all could be counted on to get under the president’s skin. Bret Baier’s 2010 interview with the president was tough and informative. Needless to say, he never interviewed Obama again.

The Putnam Principle applies to the Times. Here are the questions Shear and his colleague Jackie Calmes asked the president. See if you’d have any trouble answering them: "Why shouldn’t we expect that you’re going to leave behind an economy that’s fragile, continued income inequality, and a weakened middle class?" "Do you worry that that could end up being your legacy simply because of the obstruction that—and the gridlock doesn’t seem to end?" "You said it yourself in the speech that Washington has taken its eye off the ball. Do you have any—are you culpable at all in that?" "Do you wish you were giving a speech like this earlier and done it more often?" "Is there any part of your agenda moving forward that you think you are willing to move to the backburner so that you can spend more time on the economy?" (Don’t hurt yourself on the backburner as you are moving forward, Mr. President.) "How can you—how are you going to—what exactly can you do between now and the end of the year to overcome the Republicans’ opposition and change that, to end sequester?" "Have you yielded anything from your outreach to the Republicans?" "And do you still have hope for a 10-year deal by the end of the year?" "What are you looking for in a [Federal Reserve] chairman?" "And there were reports yesterday that you are very close to naming Larry Summers as the new Fed chairman. True?" "Do you want to say who?" "And do you still have a timeline for announcing that?" "Is there anything that Canada could do or the oil companies could do to offset that as a way of helping you to reach that decision?" (What can they do to make your life easier?) "Could that offset concerns about the pipeline itself?" "There’s been a lot of folks out there on the Republican side who claim that somehow you’ve exceeded your authority on this. Is there anything to that?" "Did you consult with your lawyer?" "What are you going to be doing to build support [for Obamacare]?" "Are you going to be getting out on the road?" "March on Washington coming up soon. Are you going to do anything to mark it?" And "are you planning on being a part of the 50th anniversary?"

What is most striking about these questions is how many of them concern an upcoming personnel decision that, while significant to the economy, is at the moment of interest only to squabbling factions of liberals. Here too the circuit cannot be broken. Most of the other questions are constructed so as to provide the president an opportunity to attack the GOP and restate his accomplishments and goals. Edward Snowden, Lois Lerner, James Rosen, Mohamed Morsi, Bashar Assad, Nouri al-Maliki, Vladimir Putin, Hasan Rouhani, and Hamid Karzai are not mentioned. Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, and Bob Filner are not mentioned. Indeed, hardly a single event or personality that has occupied the public imagination over the last six months is mentioned. The exception is Trayvon Martin, who the president references toward the end of the exchange. The only other proper names to appear in the transcript are Larry Summers, Ben Bernanke, John Kerry (in relation to the Keystone Pipeline), Robert Putnam, "Jackie," and "Mike."

The Times has participated in an act of political evasion breathtaking in its shamelessness. One might object that the range of topics was limited to the subject of the president’s speaking tour on the economy. But if that were the case, why did the Times agree to such ground rules in the first place? Aren’t the readers of the New York Times interested in hearing President Obama’s answers to tough questions about the various controversies at home and crises abroad? Perhaps they are not. Perhaps they are far more interested in having their public morality, their view of the world, of who is bad and who is good, of what is important and what is not, confirmed for them in a series of advertisements for President Obama and the Democratic Party. Perhaps they are more interested in sitting back and watching, passively, as the president shifts the public’s attention away from scandal and turmoil, and defines his domestic opponents in preparation for budget and debt fights. Perhaps readers of the Times and writers of the Times and editors of the Times are not interested in information per se. What interests them is affirmation.

"Thanks, guys. Appreciate you," the president says as the reporters leave the room. Of that I have no doubt.