Anyone reading the paper's page-one piece on last night's Obama press conference -- a judgement-laden thumbsucker by political reporters Peter Baker and Adam Nagourney -- could be forgiven for thinking they were reading an Alessandra Stanley review, and not news coverage of the President's prime time comments.
The result: numerous specific statements by Obama were left unchecked or unchallenged, while the NYT focused instead -- as they seem to greatly enjoy doing -- on the emotional nuances of Obama's style and manner.
Hey guys, we've got an Internet full of bloggers and commentators who can pick apart the president's mood. How about the NYT reporters devote their well-compensated time to reporting on the substance of what Obama said?
For example: in response to a tough question from CNN's aggressive reporter Ed Henry -- wondering why Obama took so long to respond to the AIG bonuses, while New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo got out in front of the issue -- Obama testily and abruptly replied:
Well, it took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak.
Wouldn't it have been interesting and valuable to follow up on that quote with reporting or context? Maybe something that explained to the reader what could possibly have taken two days to learn? Or whether his comment was made as a criticism of media pressure, or Cuomo's actions? Instead, the NYT chose to stick with its favorite theme: Obama's personality.
Here's a sampler of the Obama personality interpretations that littered the piece. The tone began with the lede, which in the NYT's old days would have appeared atop a "news analysis" piece accompanying the news coverage:
For just under an hour on Tuesday night, Americans saw not the fiery and inspirational speaker who riveted the nation in his address to Congress last month, or the conversational president who warmly engaged Americans in talks across the country, or even the jaunty and jokey president who turned up on Jay Leno.
Instead, in his second prime-time news conference from the White House, it was Barack Obama the lecturer, a familiar character from early in the campaign. Placid and unsmiling, he was the professor in chief, offering familiar arguments in long paragraphs — often introduced with the phrase, “as I said before” — sounding like the teacher speaking in the stillness of a classroom where students are restlessly waiting for the ring of the bell.
After a few paragraphs of straightforward assessment that felt shoehorned into the commentary, the NYT returned by the seventh paragraph to its ongoing Rorschach test of his behavior:
At a time of anger and anxiety in the country, Mr. Obama showed little emotion. He rarely cracked a joke or raised his voice. Even when he declared himself upset over the $165 million in bonuses paid this month by the American International Group despite its taxpayer bailout, his voice sounded calm and unbothered. “I’m as angry as anybody about those bonuses,” he said, adding that executives needed to learn that “enriching themselves on the taxpayers’ dime is inexcusable.”
Even Obama's quote about the slowness to react to the bonuses -- which ended up as the NYT's quotation of the day -- was presented not as news, but as a reflection of his temperament.
The only time he seemed irritated came when he was asked why the attorney general of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo, seemed to have more success getting A.I.G. executives to return some bonuses than his own administration. Pressed on why he did not express outrage immediately upon learning of the bonuses, Mr. Obama said sharply, “Well, it took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”
The obsession with Obama's personal style continued, to the near-total exclusion of the sort of reportage and fact-checking that the NYT once offered as a followup to a presidential news conference. The NYT skimmed the substance to focus on the ephemeral:
He showed his usual comfort with a wide array of subjects, even as he excluded the nation’s big newspapers from the questioning in favor of a more eclectic mix. He signaled that the new conservative government in Israel could make achieving a peace deal more difficult. He expressed patience about dealing with Iran. And he defended his proposal to increase the tax burden on the wealthy.
This was Mr. Obama as more enervating than energizing, a reminder of the way he could be in his early days as a presidential candidate, before he became defined by rapturous crowds.
“He doesn’t seem to emote any real urgency or anger,” said Matthew Dowd, a former Republican strategist who has often been complimentary of the new president. “So at times it comes across as a bit distant and intellectual," Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant, said: “He said all the right things. But sometimes his confidence makes him seem flat.”By the end, Baker and Nagourney lapsed completely into editorial commentary, using the press conference as a starting point for a full-bore assessment of the Obama presidency. Gone was any pretense of reporting on the specifics of the president's remarks. Gone also was any effort at dispassionate reporting:
Throughout his time in public life, Mr. Obama has confronted questions about whether he was too detached, too analytical, too intellectual. In the campaign, he was as likely to be compared to Adlai E. Stevenson as he was to John F. Kennedy. And if there is a pattern to Mr. Obama, it is to lumber through periods like this and then become intense and animated at the first sign of trouble.Over the long term, Mr. Obama’s calm has served him well, in particular at the critical moment in the campaign when the economy began its steep slide. “That is one of the things people like about him,” Mr. Trippi said.
When the NYT's primary source in covering a presidential press conference is Joe Trippi -- a political animal who most recently worked on the John Edwards presidential campaign -- maybe it's time to rethink the approach.
Not everything is about spin, folks. Sometimes, the facts themselves warrant some in-depth attention.