To be fair to Vox, even the most experienced White House reporters can be undone by the president in interviews. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News Channel, for one, has failed to puncture the White House shield in his “exclusive” Obama interviews. Presidents, after all, are playing on their home courts, where they set the rules and control the shot clock. A president is too well-briefed by his staff to be caught off guard by ingenious questions. No president will allow news to be made in an interview unless he wants to make news. Also, etiquette dictates that reporters not interrupt the president whenever he drones on like a slow leak out of a monster truck tire, which Obama does with Vox, at one point filibustering for 750 words—almost as long as this column!—in response to a shapeless labor question posed by Yglesias. An interview with the president may add to a journalist’s prestige, but, like White House briefings, it’s an empty ritual.
But that’s not what bothers me about the Vox interview. Here, for me, is the real rub:
In the example of Klein and Yglesias, they’re less interested in interviewing Obama than they are in explaining his policies. Again and again, they serve him softball—no, make that Nerf ball—questions and then insert infographics and footnotes that help advance White House positions. Vox has lavished such spectacular production values on the video version of the Obama interview—swirling graphics and illustrations, background music (background music!?), aggressive editing, multiple camera angles—that the clips end up looking and sounding like extended commercials for the Obama-in-2016 campaign. I’ve seen subtler Scientology recruitment films.
This, of course, is not surprising as Klein and Yglesias are two of the president’s biggest new media fan boys, although the former has had some lucid moments regarding the realities of Obamacare. This was more like a Tiger Beat interview with Leif Garrett in 1978 than any attempt at real journalism. The YouTube interview with the woman who eats cereal from the bathtub wasn’t any less silly than this fawning effort from Klein and Yglesias.
In the months leading up to the 2012 election, President Obama only granted interviews to local outlets or variety show hosts. He was mocked for this by many Republicans but it turned out to have been a pretty sound strategy. The casual voters who don’t consume political news 24/7 are found watching talk shows, not cable news. He doesn’t need the votes now, yet he still is going for appearances with puppy-eyed hero worshipers. It seems as if he is attempting to pre-game the eventual writing of his legacy, hence the “explaining” that Shafer talks about in the article.
He may get some short-term mileage out of this approach, but we have to hope that historians of the future won’t be using Matt Yglesias for much source material.