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.
My favorite moment is when the president mentions someone he’s been talking to. “I had a conversation a couple of weeks back with Robert Putnam,” Obama says, “who I’ve known for a long time.” Putnam is a renowned sociologist, and the ability to drop his name is a requirement for membership in elite circles. What makes this name-drop special is that Obama not only assumes the reporters know who Putnam is, he amplifies his snobbery by mentioning that the author of Bowling Alone and American Grace has been a personal acquaintance for years, as though that in itself is an achievement, as though that somehow makes the sentence he is about to utter more meaningful.
Just then, though, one of the Times reporters, Michael D. Shear, interrupts the president and says what has to be one of the most beautiful and revealing sentences ever to appear on Nytimes.com: “He was my professor actually at Harvard.” Almost every word of this sentence is an act of social positioning worthy of Castiglione. “My” conveys ownership, possession, and intimacy; the “actually” is a subtle exercise in one-upmanship, implying a correction of fact or status, and suggesting that Shear, who seems to have taken a course with Putnam while pursuing a graduate degree at the Kennedy School, is on closer terms with him than the president of the United States of America; and of course the big H, “Harvard,” before whose authority all must bow down.