Jun 15, 2009 16 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
There used to be an old yarn in Washington that went like this:
Four journalists are sitting in the waiting room of an important government officialâ€™s office. The receptionist rings her boss to announce, â€œSir, there are three reporters and a gentleman from The New York Times here to see you.â€
The story is a relic of an earlier age, when the Times loomed like Olympus over elite journalism. But the mind-set is enjoying a revival in the Age of Obama.
Where George W. Bushâ€™s team made a show of not caring about the Times, aides in this White House treat the paper with a deference that James Reston himself would have appreciated.
Young aides boast about how social networking helped President Barack Obama first win the presidency and now promotes his message outside the filter of mainstream journalism. The president grants interviews to Hispanic journalists on Univision and calls on reporters from newcomers like Huffington Post (and POLITICO) at news conferences.
But for all its new media airs, the new White House team remains in the thrall of perhaps the most emblematic old media institution of all.
Senior Obama officials during the transition posed for Times Sunday Magazine portraits and then opened the doors again with top-level access for another major magazine piece this month on health care. Midlevel officials cooperate for Times profiles detailing their key behind-the-scenes roles.
Even routine news stories buried deep inside the A-section of the Times often quote high-level sources speaking both on and off the record.
One part of Obamaâ€™s Times fixation is strategy. For all the proliferation of news outlets, Obama aides believe the paper still has an outsize ability to shape perceptions among political elites and other journalists.
But part of the relationship is more complicated, according to some close observers, flowing from a cultural affinity that makes Obamaites crave the validation that comes from being written about by the Times.
â€œThe clichÃ© of the Upper West Side liberal getting the NYT and bagels on Sundays is still very much alive,â€ said Democratic strategist Phil Singer. â€œBut make no mistake: The NYT is still the gold standard for any elected official â€” Republican or Democrat.â€
Still, the instinct to see the world revolving around 620 Eighth Ave. in Manhattan is an emphatically Democratic phenomenon.
â€œA Democratic White House cares much more what The New York Times says,â€ said Vanity Fairâ€™s Todd S. Purdum, who previously covered the White House for the Times. For many staffers in a Democratic White House, he continued, â€œThe New York Times has been the true north of mainstream journalism.â€
Several Times reporters and editors, in interviews with POLITICO, described a significant departure from the Bush years, with the Obama team both aggressively reaching out to them and paying closer attention to their copy.
Matt Bai, who this month wrote an 8,200-word magazine cover story on the White Houseâ€™s health care strategy, relied heavily on insider access that would have been unthinkable during the previous eight years.