Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How To Handle A Halbfinger? There's A Way, Said The Wise Old Man.

How to handle a Halbfinger?
There's a way," said the wise old man,
"A way known by ev'ry Kennedy
Since the whole rigmarole began."
"Do I flatter him?" she begged him answer.
"Do I threaten or cajole or plead?
Do I brood or play the gay romancer?"
Said he, smiling: "No indeed.
How to handle a Halbfinger?
Mark me well, I will tell you, ma'am:
The way to handle a Halbfinger
Is to love him...simply love him...
Merely love him...love him...love him."

What was Caroline Kennedy to do? The moment she went public with her desire for New York's vacant Senate seat, she knew the Times would come calling with an interview request. The famously shy Camelot heiress wanted a positive piece, of course, but wasn't ready to reveal herself to a reporter just yet.

But reporters are an ornery bunch. If they don't get their interview, and have no one to talk to, they can end up saying all sorts of uncomplimentary things and talking to all manner of mean-spirited enemies.

So Caroline and her cohorts cooked up a perfect strategy to control the Times's coverage this morning of her candidacy: they would cooperate, but in the classically subtle and mysterious ways that set a Kennedy apart. Kennedy's friends would keep reporter David Halbfinger so busy interviewing them -- and gathering wondrously sympathetic anecdotes -- that he would have no time left to look in detail at any weaknesses in her resume, or to talk to those who might oppose her candidacy for legitimate reasons.

The result couldn't have been more made to order: an extensive look at Kennedy and her background this morning that portrays her exactly the way she wanted, and in the newspaper that matters more than any other.

Only a single paragraph in Halbfinger's 1,229-word piece quotes anyone who speaks ill of a Kennedy candidacy, or raises any reasons why she might be viewed as unqualified due to lack of experience. While it may be a forgone conclusion that Kennedy is the perfect choice for the job, isn't it reasonable to expect the Times to dig deeper than a roundup of a candidate's close friends?

Maybe such a story will appear in days to come. But by the fourth paragraph of today's profile, Halbfinger's off and running on a loving portrait of an American sweetheart:

But friends and associates say that Ms. Kennedy, 51, is no dilettante, and that her career is replete with examples of the kind of hands-on policy work and behind-the-scenes maneuvering that could serve her well.

How did Halbfinger come to this conclusion? Late in the story, he finally reveals the means of manipulation:

True to form, Ms. Kennedy declined to be interviewed for this article. But she did cooperate indirectly, freeing a few friends and associates, through an intermediary, to discuss her.

They and several others, described a woman who is surprisingly down to earth: who carried sensible shoes in her bag for the walk home from a dressy event at Tavern on the Green; who declined a lift downtown when caught without an umbrella in a rainstorm, instead heading for the subway in a baseball cap; who does not shirk her periodic safety patrol duty, with its reflective vests and walkie-talkies, as a Collegiate School mom; who is an assiduous e-mailer, if not so fast at returning voice mail; who has a personal assistant, but does not use her as a gatekeeper the way so many not-so-famous people do; and who loves to play Running Charades, a version of the popular parlor game.

In other words, by making her friends -- armed with anecdotes-- available to Halbfinger, Kennedy insured an article filled to overflowing with insidery details of her work at Harvard and on the Obama campaign, her commitments to charity and to family, and her determination not to be seen, falsely, as an heiress who feels entitled to the Senate seat because of her name. She is a politician's daughter, niece, and cousin, yet she doesn't want to be described as a politician herself.

Even the brazenly political act of helping Rupert Murdoch's daughter get into Brearley was seen as evidence of Kennedy being a "consummate insider," rather than a coldly calculating move to curry favor with the owner of Fox News and the New York Post. Halbfinger's story also failed to even mention Kennedy's well-known friendship with Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., whose support would also come in handy in a political career.

Instead, Halbfinger devoted paragraph after paragraph to Kennedy-friendly material provided by friends: Ann Moore, the CEO of Time Inc.; Joel Klein, the New York City schools chancellor; Jane Rosenthal, the co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, Elaine Jones, the retired head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and others endorsed their friend's candidacy, offered details of her do-good activities, and extolled her virtues. "There's nothing at all pretentious about her," Rosenthal told Halbfinger, typical of the tone.

In the days to come, the Times's coverage will do more to shape public perception of the Kennedy candidacy than any other media outlet. It will benefit both the newspaper, the governor and the state's voters if the Times treats Kennedy less like the icon she once was, and more like the politician she is about to become.

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