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Sunday, February 09, 2014


The Court Reporters

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.

Here's the question and the answer: no they are not interested in answers to tough questions; that would assume that Obama is actually responsible for some problems and that's not part of the story line for the Times and its readers.
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.

As Glenn Reynolds has noted many times, the NY Times writers are Dem operatives with bylines.

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