NY Times and 'Serious' Journalism

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

I pick on the New York Times a lot for its flubs, not because I hate the paper or because I own some nearly worthless shares in the company. I do it because the journalism done there still matters.

Over the weekend and yesterday we saw examples of the organization's better and lesser sides. Let's start with the good stuff:

The better came in the form of a richly detailed magazine story about Cleveland's housing and neighborhoods -- left a shambles by the deflated bubble that has done so much damage around America and the world. The story is a ground-level look at the disaster, and it's as grim as you can imagine: a city, pillaged by greed at every level, but almost totally outgunned by the pillagers.

The writer, Alex Kotlowitz, is a university professor, author and former reporter. He's as good as they get, and the Times surely paid plenty for this piece, in its freelance fee plus expenses plus the editing talent inside the newspaper itself. More on this in upcoming posts, but if we don't find ways to support this kind of journalism we'll all be worse off.

Also in the Sunday edition, however, was the paper's long-demanded interview with Obama, which the Times somewhat arrogantly considers its birthright with every new president. The reporters used the opportunity to learn a few things about Obama's work and goals. But in the process one reporter, Peter Baker, asked one of the most idiotic questions I've ever heard from a reputable news organization. He asked if Obama was a socialist, and then, when Obama said no, followed up with, "Is there anything wrong with saying yes?" Obama, for his part, called the paper later to say he couldn't believe the paper was "entirely serious." That's more polite than the journalists deserved.

The Washington Post, in a rare case of one news organization asking hard questions of another about its journalism, followed up on this and got the following from an unnamed NYT editor who quoted an email from 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.

If the goal was really what he said, he could have asked the question in that context. He could have simply said, "Given the paradigm shift in the view of government's role amid all the bailouts, stimulus, health care and all the rest, Newsweek's cover story recently said, 'We are All Socialists Now.' Do you agree?" An exchange prompted by that question would have been legitimate.

But the real context, as everyone else in the world knows, was the right wing talk machine's collective decision to brand Obama as a socialist who wants government to take over just about everything. Given how Baker asked his question, and his snarky near-demand that the Obama answer yes, he embarrassed his newspaper, badly. Give the Times credit: It didn't delete this stuff from the transcript, which might have been a temptation given the vacuous nature of Baker's queries.

Speaking of giving credit to the Times, several of its writers and editors are hanging out more often in public places where they can be part of a larger conversation about what they do. This is a hugely important recognition on their part that their audience has something useful to offer, and that they have a duty to that audience to be a genuine part of this emergent conversation.

Which accounts for some small disappointment in an exchange I had yesterday on Twitter with a Times editor who's one of the more open members of his clan and who's doing a lot to make the place seem more human and less institutional. It started when he posted a Tweet announcing, "NYT e-mail interview with Ann Coulter. SHE WRITES IN ALL CAPS!!!! http://bit.ly/yf9Eq"

The rest of the exchange went this way (I removed our screen names and re-quotes of the other's Tweets for clarity):

Me: serious news org doesn't interview Ann Coulter
Him: A serious news organization doesn't declare things off limits.
Me: nothing off-limits for NYT? GMAB - there's stuff the Times will never do, properly so..
Him: If Coulter didn't sell books or have a following, I might agree. We try to explain the world, even parts you don't like.
Me: so notoriety and book sales trump all other judgment. disappointing.
Him: That's not what I said. Have a nice day.

To be fair, no, I didn't repeat back precisely what he said, but I do think I reflected the gist of it. Also to be fair, Twitter is probably the worst place to have a serious conversation. You can't do nuance in 140 characters; at least I'm no good at it.

Most of all, there was no way I should have expected him to denounce his own employer's decision to engage in a public conversation with one of society's best-known spreaders of political poison. But his ultimate brush-off struck me as just the kind of thing Big Journalism folks do when asked to justify things they've said. Maybe I deserved to be shut down there, but he never did fully address the issue he'd raised in the first place by promoting the paper's email exchange with the odious pundit.

News organizations are complicated places, filled with people who want, by and large, to do the right thing. More than almost any other, we expect the Times to reflect the best in American journalism. At least I do.