Peter Baker Does in New York Times Exactly What Beat Reporters Aren't Supposed to Do
There are the accepted rules of journalism. Then there are The New York Times rules.
The Times rules allow its beat reporters to go off the reservation. They will find occasion to offer analysis, teeter on offering a viewpoint or just plain turn into a scold on a topic they are not happy about.
Such is the case with this morning's A-1 profile by Peter Baker headlined "4 Years Later, a President is Scarred but Still Confident." Baker gets a jump from the front page to a full open page to climb into Obama's brain and let us know thoughts are lurking inside. It's a strange, even dangerous place for a White House beat reporter to be. But Baker is undeterred, to mixed results.
The article reads like a magazine takeout. There are the assorted talking heads, named and unnamed, to provide Baker with the requisite reinforcement for his talking points, which center on how Obama was forced to change his game plan, even if he was not able to change himself.
This is a president who has yet to realize the lofty expectations that propelled him from obscurity to the Oval Office, whose idealism or naïveté or hubris has been tempered by four years in the fires. Long after the messiah jokes vanished, the oh-so-mortal Barack Hussein Obama is left to make the case that while progress is slow, he is taking America to a better place — and that he will be a better president over the next four years.
If Denver was all about promise, Charlotte is all about patience. Whether Americans grant the 44th president a four-year extension will depend in part on his ability to reconcile the heady aspirations of 2008 with the messy results of the four years that followed.
If this doesn't sound like something a news reporter would write, that's because it's not. But that's the point, And it's not necessarily a good thing. By authoring such a piece, Baker has essentially played his hand with the White House. The portrait of Obama is at times unflattering, severe and fleetingly sympathetic. But the thin skins in the West Wing are unlikely to take kindly to this portrait. Which could compromise Baker's ability to be as effective in his cubicle as he now is.
If Mr. Obama has changed over his presidency, in part it suggests Americans never really knew him to begin with. Where conservatives see an unremitting liberal, supporters on the left wish he were. To mystified admirers, it is unrequited love. When they read in David Maraniss’s biography of how a girlfriend told him, “I love you,” only to have him reply, “Thank you,” some joked they knew how she felt.
On the hustings, Mr. Obama is more careful to reply in kind. When someone shouts out, “We love you,” he calls out, “I love you back.” But sometimes it does not feel that way. His has become a bloodless presidency, built on cold calculations, not quixotic crusades.
An article with the above passages can certainly have a place in the Times, or any other worthy newspaper. However, the enterprise becomes more dubious when it's authored by a reporter whose tendencies should not be betrayed by his dispatches. Here, Baker has opened a door and let us have a look at something we weren't supposed to see.