Saturday, December 27, 2008

Kennedy Accuses NYT Of Asking Questions Worthy Of A "Woman's Magazine." She's Right.

Caroline Kennedy took on the two Times reporters covering her campaign for the U.S. Senate this morning, and she won, hands-down -- until the reporters got back to their desks and eviscerated her in print.

David M. Halbfinger and Nicholas Confessore walked away from an interview with Kennedy this morning at the Lenox Hill Diner battered and empty-handed. The story they scratched out in a few hours reflects less news than annoyance, and adds to the confusing tone of the Times's coverage of Kennedy -- alternately fawning and undermining, and rarely balanced in tone or content.

"In an extensive sit-down discussion Saturday morning with The New York Times," they wrote in a page-one Sunday story posted online at 1:52 pm today, "[Kennedy] still seemed less like a candidate than an idea of one: eloquent but vague, largely undefined and seemingly determined to remain that way."

The reporters describe "weeks of criticism" that Kennedy has not opened up to the press. But Kennedy only entered the competition for the Senate seat on December 15, less than two weeks ago.

In any case, Kennedy seemed well-prepared for the interview -- not necessarily to answer the specific policy and personal questions the reporters asked, but ready to brush them off as inappropriate to the process.

When Halbfinger and Confessore asked her to describe the decision-making process she went through in deciding to seek the Senate seat, Kennedy showed exactly the sort of straight-ahead spunk that ought to endear her to voters, if not reporters. And you can see in the reporters' prose just how prickly the conversation turned at that point:

And with several weeks to go before Mr. Paterson makes his decision, she is doling out glimpses of her political beliefs and private life. But when asked Saturday morning to describe the moment she decided to seek the Senate seat, Ms. Kennedy seemed irritated by the question and said she couldn’t recall.

“You guys ever think about writing for a woman’s magazine?” she asked the reporters. “I thought you were the crack political team.”

Kennedy was right to wonder about their skills. Halbfinger and Confessore showed a remarkable inability to get Kennedy to come clean on policy issues or on her motivations, a failure that rankled them no end.

Never mind the fact that most prospective appointees never have to document their motives or their political views; to these Times reporters, Kennedy has already violated the public trust in her gentle avoidance of a substantive policy discussion, or personality profile. Listen to them complain:

New Yorkers appear to have a favorable view of Ms. Kennedy and fond memories of her family. But they know little about her positions or what has driven her to seek office after years spent mostly avoiding the spotlight.

Kennedy tried to remind the reporters that she's not campaigning for voter approval and acknowledged that an actual political campaign would be a better context to address all the questions she has been asked:

"I think that, actually, a campaign would be an easier way, because I think it would give me a chance to explain exactly what I’m doing, why I would want to do this, and, you know, to get people to know me better and to understand exactly what my plans would be, how hard I would work," Ms. Kennedy said.

But that distinction means nothing to Confessore and Halbfinger, who express near-outrage every time Kennedy ducks specifics about upstate New York, about specific policy questions, or about financial disclosure -- all issues Kennedy has no obligation to discuss except with David Paterson, the man who might appoint her.

The reporters kept reverting to one key transitional word in their unbalanced reconstruction of the interview: "but." The word came in handy whenever they wanted to juxtapose Kennedy's views to their vision of some more appropriate answer.

Some examples:

"As a Candidate, Kennedy Is Eloquent but Elusive" -- the headline.

She praised Mrs. Clinton, but said it was too soon to say how she could improve on Mrs. Clinton’s performance as a senator. She said she had been personally affected by the economic crisis but sidestepped questions about her wealth, declining to say how much money she lived on each year.

Ms. Kennedy has already taken positions on issues like same-sex marriage, which she supports, and school vouchers, which she opposes. But in the interview on Saturday, she said she hoped to be a consensus-builder, and declined to describe her positions on some other pressing public issues — even in an area like education, where she has been personally active. Ms. Kennedy would not say, for example, whether she supported proposals to abolish tenure for teachers and offer them merit pay instead.

Asked how much of a role her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, might take in her political career — on the hustings in Watertown, say, or other political way-stations in the north country — she hinted that he might be busy elsewhere, given his own career as the head of a prominent design firm. But she said no one could have a more supportive husband.

Ms. Kennedy said she had spent some time in the Catskills and the Adirondacks, but when asked her favorite place in the state outside of the city and Long Island, she said, “I like visiting historical sites. I loved visiting the battlefields of Saratoga.”

Ms. Kennedy said her finances had been affected by the economic crisis, though “not as badly as a lot of people’s. I’m lucky that I’m not afraid of losing my home, and my husband still has a job.”

But she declined to discuss details.

And, of course, one last "but" at the end:

As their interview wrapped up, one of the Times reporters tried to pose an additional question, but she interrupted him.

“I think we’re done,” she said.

The interview may have been done. But Halbfinger and Confessore had the last word, determined to leave Times readers with the distinct impression that Kennedy had avoided, obfuscated and tap-danced her way through an interview with the state's most powerful newspaper. In that, they succeeded.

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