Obama and the New York Times

A belated note on this one, but there was a fair amount of hand-wringing going on inside the Times newsroom after Obama won the election and failed to make time on his schedule for a sit-down interview, pre-inauguration, with the newspaper; an event which had become something of a tradition in recent years with previous presidents.

Normally, as a media critic I'd be in favor of presidents granting as much access as possible, and in favor of continuing the Times' tradition as a way for news consumers to get in-depth answers to important policy questions.

But now I'm not so sure Obama wasn't right to ignore the Times. Not after its third question put to him last week:

“Are you a socialists, as some people have said?”

“Some,” as in Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck and Jim Cramer. Is that where the Times staff now looks for relevant and insightful commentary?

If I were bing generous, I'd say I could see what the Times reporter was thinking when he posed the question, which was to mention an out-there accusation and allow Obama to address it on his own terms. That the Times wasn't endorsing the socialist meme, but it was giving the president a chance to confront this critics in detail.

But sorry, that approach doesn't fly because there's no precedent for that at the Times when interviewing previous presidents. There's no precedent, that I'm aware of, of asking the POTUS to address the most incendiary claims that were being thrown at him by his detractors. For instance, I can't imagine that, if given the chance for a sit-down interview with Bush, post 9/11, a Times reporter would have asked the president to address the conspiracy theory that claimed he plotted the terrorist attacks himself. That represented idiocy then, just as the socialist talk represents idiocy now.

So why did the Times dignify it?

The simple truth is that by asking Obama whether he was a socialist, the Times effectively endorsed the divisive right-wing rhetoric; the Times shoved it into the mainstream. Looking ahead, I'm not sure Obama will make an effort to accommodate the Times for more sit-down interviews. And given the Times' performance last week, I'm not sure that he should.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent got a response from Peter Baker, the Times reporter who asked the socialist question. Here's Baker's response in full. It's actually quite a comical bit of revisionism, if you keep in mind the actual posed to Obama was, “Are you a socialist?”

According to Baker:

The goal of the question was to get at the same issue your sister publication, Newsweek, was addressing with its recent cover story, “We Are All Socialists Now.”

The point is not the label, per se, but the question of whether the times and the solutions under consideration represent some sort of paradigm shift in our national thinking about the role of government in society. In a moment of taxpayer bank bailouts and shifting tax burden proposals and exploding deficits and expansive health care and energy plans, what is the future of American-style capitalism?

We were also interested in exploring how a new president defines his political philosophy, something that has been the subject of intense debate. We wanted to draw him out on all of that and I think his answers, both in the interview itself and the follow-up phone call, were interesting and important.

Seems to me if Baker wanted to address those topics he should have, y'know, asked those questions. Instead he asked a moronic one.