Four journalists are sitting in the waiting room of an important government official’s office. The receptionist rings her boss to announce, “Sir, there are three reporters and a gentleman from The New York Times here to see you.”
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. Bush’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.
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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 Obama’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.
“The cliché of the Upper West Side liberal getting the NYT and bagels on Sundays is still very much alive,” said Democratic strategist Phil Singer. “But make no mistake: The NYT is still the gold standard for any elected official — Republican or Democrat.”
Still, the instinct to see the world revolving around 620 Eighth Ave. in Manhattan is an emphatically Democratic phenomenon.
“A Democratic White House cares much more what The New York Times says,” said Vanity Fair’s Todd S. Purdum, who previously covered the White House for the Times. For many staffers in a Democratic White House, he continued, “The New York Times has been the true north of mainstream journalism.”
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 House’s health care strategy, relied heavily on insider access that would have been unthinkable during the previous eight years.
Bai recalled that a 2005 meeting with Times Magazine Editor Gerald Marzorati and Bush communications director Nicolle Wallace didn’t go so well in terms of access.
“It was as if we had walked in asking for cooperation for High Times,” Bai said.
For his latest piece, by contrast, Bai said he made seven trips to the White House — twice as many sit-downs as he got during the seven years he covered Bush.
“We know that President Obama actually reads the Times magazine,” said Marzorati. “President Bush made a sort of political point of saying The New York Times was not only something he didn’t look at but was something he thought was detrimental t the nation.”
In March, Marzorati and Bai met with deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton in the White House to talk about access and said the change from the Wallace meeting four years earlier was “significant.”
Wallace, Marzorati recalled, had asked him for Times circulation numbers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, leaving a negative impression on the editor: “It was a kind of, ‘We don’t care about you.’” (Wallace disputes this account and said over e-mail that she had “good to great relationships” with a number of Times staffers.)
Since Election Day, the magazine has clearly benefited from a new regime in the White House.
In addition to Bai’s piece, Obama sat down with economics columnist David Leonhardt in April and got on the phone with Mark Leibovich in December. For the “Obama’s People” cover and inside spread, just prior to the Inauguration, the magazine was given access to photograph dozens of administration staffers — from Cabinet-level officials to the president’s body man.
While the Obama team bragged to the magazine in December about not having to court elite opinion during the campaign — i.e., never sitting down with The Washington Post editorial board — the opposite has been true in the post-election period, with lots of outreach to influential writers.
By granting access for the magazine’s health care piece, for instance, the Obama White House pushed the idea that it won’t stumble over the issue in Congress, like the Clintons did. The Times got the scoop and the White House got its message out — a win-win for both reporter and source.
And yet one veteran Washington Democrat said the piece rankled some congressional Democrats and that the White House needs to be more careful in projecting its ideas in a way that can come across as arrogant. “Congressional Democrats are going to matter more to his success than The New York Times Magazine,” said the source.
This is a lesson that Democratic presidents typically have more trouble learning. During his presidency, Bill Clinton raged about Times editorials on Whitewater and told aides that they were because Alabama-born editor Howell Raines, then the editorial page editor, was an elitist who hated the fact that Clinton had risen to the top without selling out his Southern roots. Aides would listen to Clinton’s rants, covertly roll their eyes and gently try to suggest that not many people actually read the editorials. But Clinton’s fixation remained unabated.
To some, having a commander in chief who’s a known reader of the paper makes a difference, as that level of interest trickles down, leading to officials and press staffers working more diligently to engage the Times.
Burton acknowledges that the Times is “one of the many papers that [the president] reads every day.” (Indeed, there’s photographic evidence outside the upper press office at the White House: A portrait was recently hung of Obama reading the Times aboard Marine One.)
Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary under Clinton, said that when it comes to reaching out to devoted readers of the editorial page, which includes prominent Democrats, the Obama team is “very smart to do everything they can.”
“I’d say the editorial page is slightly different than the front page of the magazine,” Lockhart said. “I think there are hundreds of thousands of readers of The New York Times every day who can make up their own minds but do look to the editorial page as a source of orthodox liberal thought.”
Indeed, Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal told POLITICO in March that he’s had “more unsolicited offers for participation from the Obama people in 45 days” than during Bush’s two terms. And just before leaving for the Middle East this month, Obaa got on the phone with Thomas Friedman for his column — having already given face-time to Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, David Brooks and Maureen Dowd.
Brooks not only broke bread with Obama at George Will’s house in January — along with several conservative columnists — but the president dropped in on a meeting with senior administration officials who’d summoned the Timesman to the White House in order to explain their policy positions. Brooks even walked away with an autographed chart of spending statistics with an inscription above Obama’s signature: “To Comrade Brooks.”
There still aren’t such warm feelings between the Bush White House and some Times columnists — even after Bush packed up for Crawford, Texas. On Wednesday, Karl Rove described Dowd as “twisted” and “deranged” in a Fox News interview, and last month, Dick Cheney continued beating the drum that the Times’ scoop on the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping “could only help Al Qaeda.”
“I never had a sense when I was at The Washington Post or the Times that George Bush was reading us,” said reporter Mark Leibovich. And Times congressional reporter Carl Hulse, no stranger to dealing with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel from his days on the Hill, said that it wasn’t until 2007, following the Democratic takeover in the midterms, that he was ever even invited to the White House.
These days, some Times staffers say, the paper’s relationship more closely resembles that of the Clinton years, with Emanuel and other players frequently on the line.
White House correspondent Peter Baker said that unlike Emanuel, Bush’s chiefs of staff Josh Bolten and Andy Card “didn’t call a lot of people back.”
Baker, like other top Times reporters, gets calls returned these days. For example, Baker’s recent tick-tock detailing the selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, cowritten with Adam Nagourney, included on-the-record interviews with several top officials — Emanuel, senior adviser David Axelrod, White House counsel Greg Craig — along with other anonymous aides who methodically explained the vetting process.
Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet, who arrived toward the tail of end of the Bush years, acknowledges there’s a better relationship with the Obama White House but maintains that it hasn’t affected what he called the paper’s “very aggressive” White House coverage.
Baker pointed out that when it comes to stories the Obama White House doesn’t like, they react in a similar fashion to their predecessor: “They’re not at all shy about letting you know.”
Still, there’s a difference in who’s doing the pushback.
During a March interview aboard Air Force One between the Times’ White House team and the president — the paper’s first since January 2005 — Baker asked Obama if he was a “socialist,” as some critics had suggested. Ninety minutes after the plane landed, the Times received a phone call following up on the interview and making sure the president’s point of view was correctly represented in the paper of record.
It was Obama on the line.