So, Are Ya?

NYT foregoes nuance and asks the president, “Are you a socialist?”

The Gray Lady could have asked the socialism question differently.

On Friday afternoon, The New York Times conducted an exclusive interview with the president aboard Air Force One. One of the questions NYT reporters asked Obama—“Are you a socialist as some people have suggested?”—has some commentators riled up, with The Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins quipping, “The New York Times was THAT CLOSE to a journalistic coup!” Ezra Klein is more pointed: “Why is the New York Times wasting Obama’s day — and their 35 minutes of interview time — with these gotchas? Did they really think he would slip and admit that his stimulus plan was cadged from a footnote in Das Kapital?”

NYT reporter Peter Baker defended the question to Greg Sargent: “We were…interested in exploring how a new president defines his political philosophy, something that has been the subject of intense debate.” That would explain, to some extent, why the Times also chose to ask Obama: “Is there one word name for your philosophy? If you’re not a socialist, are you a liberal? Are you progressive? One word?”

If it’s one-word, yes/no answers that we’re looking for, I’ve got a question that might elicit one: Is the discussion of whether Obama’s economic policies signify a shift in our country’s guiding political framework at all advanced by a simplistic “So, are ya?” query from The New York Times?

The interview, on the whole, is a good one (you can read it here). Still, given the representative quality of its other questions, it’s a shame that the Times chose to employ the Are you this? Are you that? questioning technique. Yes, being direct can be effective sometimes, but in this case, it wasn’t. The questions weren’t nuanced enough to lift the discussion up and away from political ass-covering (Obama called the Times back shortly after landing to respond further to the socialism question; he wanted to iterate that “we’ve actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles”).

What’s the better question? In his response to Sargent, Baker himself fleshed out and rephrased the socialism question: “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?” The Times could easily have asked the question that way. It could also have asked the president his opinion of Newsweek’s recent cover story, “We Are All Socialists Now,” which argued that the U.S. is moving toward European-style socialism, or asked him to respond to the hesitation the word “socialism” still engenders in the public sphere (which it started to get at with the follow-up question, “Is there anything wrong with saying yes?”).

Ultimately, the questions “Are you a socialist?” or “Are you a liberal? Are you progressive?” aren’t problematic because of the responses they provoke from Obama. They’re problematic because they feed the cycle of charged rhetoric without adding much substance. Or, as Cokie Roberts put it on This Week with George Stephanopoulos:

But Obama must be concerned about it, because he — about socialism as a term — because his interview with The New York Times yesterday, and then calling the reporter back to say, you know, I — basically, I am not a socialist.

Sure, Obama seemed to want to clarify his words. But the Obama calls back to say he’s not a socialist! line of interpretation is an unfortunate dumbing-down of the conversation. And while the Times can’t entirely be blamed for this, its political reporters are no rookies. They shouldn’t be surprised that sound-bite queries will elicit sound-bite responses from the rest of the media. And that’s an outcome that could have been avoided with a different mode of questioning.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.