Opinion | Peter Baker soft-boils the news

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Peter Baker looks like a comb’s best friend with his side-parted coif and slick suits. The New York Times’s chief White House correspondent wears spectacles, not glasses, and when he spoke in the wood-paneled auditorium, I had to stand against the back-wall and duck the fire marshal because of the crush of people hoping to hear one of their own — a fellow, as the media likes to quip, “adult in the room” — explain the institution-smashing, norm-eviscerating, adult-rejecting 2018 Trump administration. 

Explanation requires contextualization, and Baker’s attempts to give it to his audience form the basis for a radical reimagining of reporting that’s been years in the making but is reaching new levels of use and acceptance.

The name The Times has given this reimagining is News Analysis, and under its guise, Baker has taken a small step from hard news to opinions. “I think that sometimes we need to go beyond who/what/where/when/why in order to provide context,” Baker said in a July interview on the Hugh Hewitt show. “Otherwise, we’re not really serving our readers.” 

At first glance, Baker’s News Analysis articles seem like regular news reporting, with typical ledes and quotes from relevant public figures. Read hastily, News Analysis feels almost indistinguishable from a great news article because the reporter subtly goes beyond the facts to include small leaps of interpretation and context that paint a much richer story. The reimagining: the idea that Times reporters can write News Analysis while staying objective enough to author regular news articles.

Read carefully, though, and you’ll come across paragraphs like this:

“Mr. Trump, of course, has rarely if ever been in the healing business. Now that he is off the hook in the Senate, he presumably will shed his reticence to speak out. His statement on Saturday was another hint about a return to public life. “We have so much work ahead of us, and soon we will emerge with a vision for a bright, radiant and limitless American future,” he wrote.”

I’m no fan of Donald Trump’s presidency, which is probably why the paragraph slid down so easily. I think Mr. Trump is incredibly divisive, and saying he “has rarely if ever been in the healing business” is an understatement bordering on comedy. What it is not, however much it pains me to admit, is a fact. Baker goes on, presuming the reason for Trump’s silence and predicting his future behavior.

The Times is full of insights like this, delivering the private thoughts of public and powerful figures. Baker, along with Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush, delivered a masterful 2017 report on Trump’s life in the White House, complete with a TV-watching schedule that started at 5:30 a.m. Packed with anecdotes from 60 Trump confidants, the article’s strength derives from its ability to build up a picture of Trump’s presidency by collecting the observations of his inner circle. Underlying the article is a belief that this collection of uninterpreted facts and anecdotes is enough for the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Though News Analysis goes a step further, Baker is careful to distinguish it from opinion writing. “[News Analysis is] not the same thing as opinion,” he told Hewitt. “We shouldn’t be facing into opinion. I agree entirely on that. But how you define what’s opinion and what’s analysis is of course a murky thing. And people might have differences of opinion about what crosses that line. I think of analysis as being fact-based, as being interpretative but not good or bad.” 

What this means practically is a little difficult to picture, but you can gauge its contours from a few paragraphs of Baker’s writing.

“President Trump’s effort to overturn the election he lost has gone beyond mere venting of grievances at the risk of damaging the very American democracy he is charged with defending.” (Jan. 4, 2021)

“If Mr. Trump is not convicted, the managers want to ensure that he remains so politically radioactive that he cannot be the same force he once was — if not the pariah they think he ought to be, then at least a figure that many mainstream Republicans and their corporate donors keep at arm’s length.” (Feb. 11, 2021)

“But this one was still different. This one will come with an asterisk in the history books if not a dark stain. This time Mr. Trump did not have the East Room of the White House to summon allies for a celebration to crow about eluding conviction. This was the most bipartisan impeachment in history and even the Republican leader castigated him. This was an escape, not an exoneration.” (Feb. 13, 2021)

I’ve excerpted these because I really think that you, the reader, have to decide what News Analysis means. Peter Baker has his own definition, and I’m going to tell you what I think about the concept, but the one thing you need to keep in mind is there’s a very real chance that both Baker and I are missing something important or are just plain wrong. 

From the examples, you can see what Baker means by context. He’s spoon-feeding the reader the Washington atmosphere that anyone who isn’t employed to cover politics can’t absorb. Context is born of the sensory experience of breathing the metaphorical smoky air in DC back rooms. Baker isn’t just writing the facts because he can deliver so much more. 

The content shift from news to News Analysis is small, but its impact is enormous because Baker is shaking up the basic covenant between reporter and reader. Baker is adding his own context and interpretations to the facts the reader uses to form their conclusions. Baker is nudging his audience: Every “interpretation” slips a wisp of independent thought from the reader and piles it upon Baker’s shoulders. By contrast, objective reporting just supplies the facts, assuming a more competent reader who’s capable of drawing their own conclusions. The possibility of objective reporting is an open debate among journalists, but what I think is apparent is that News Analysis is a lot less objective than normal Times reporting.   

What’s particularly worrying is how smoothly this transfer of agency occurs. Baker’s ability to slip his interpretations into articles while maintaining an overall newsy feel is part of what makes News Analysis so seductive and difficult to detect.

It also means that Baker has left the city on the hill of purely objective reporting. He hasn’t descended all the way down to opinions, far from it, but he’s now standing atop a slippery slope.

In some ways, Baker — who moonlights as a political analyst for MSNBC — has been looking over the edge for quite some time. “It used to be that I would not go on television if I was put on a panel with opinion columnists or people who were advocates because I didn’t like the blur of the distinction between a news reporter, which is how I see myself, and pundits,” he told Hewitt. “… I wish I didn’t do [TV] in some ways, and I can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I’ve given up trying to ask producers to only put me on with other reporters because it doesn’t work that way. They don’t operate that way, and I don’t control the networks. So my view is that when I go on TV or when I go on your show I try to stick to the four corners of what I as a reporter feel comfortable doing.”

What does this look like in practice? I pulled up an old video of Baker speaking on an MSNBC panel in November. The anchor lobs Baker a question about the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and Baker weighs the pros and cons, speaking about how it will set the tenor for Biden’s relationship with the Iranians. It’s a beautiful answer. Balanced, informed, and in that moment it’s easy to appreciate why the paper of record chose Baker to reckon with the White House.

The reason for Baker’s apprehension soon becomes clear. He’s sitting on the panel with a democratic strategist, Emily Sussman, and Jeb Bush’s former communications director, Tim Miller. Sussman speaks first. 

“…I do think that we’re seeing his [Trump’s] unraveling. Like he doesn’t have the emotional capacity; the emotional intelligence to be able to say, ‘Ok, I lost.’” 

A few minutes later Miller opines that Trump “seems like the same childish brat that he’s been since the eighties.” Sussman is grinning from ear to ear. Baker is expressionless, but I like to imagine he’s contemplating the gradual degradation of objective journalism at the hands of over-caffeinated cable producers stuffing panels for the amusement of idle eyeballs bumping through airport terminals or gym treadmills.

Sussman and Millers’ verbal ripostes have no effect on Baker’s articles, but it would be misguided to think they don’t rub off a little on Baker when he’s sitting right there with them. The pundits are throwing a wild party with plenty of punches, and while Baker isn’t drinking, he’s hanging with the crowd. This visual component to news objectivity is so important because it is how people judge their news sources and make the critical decision of what to read/watch and then believe.

To a large degree, TV and other forms of new media are the reason why Baker started writing News Analysis in the first place. Hewitt spends his last question asking Baker whether the news industry needs to reimpose objectivity. 

In recent decades, Baker replies, newspapers have tried to do more contextualizing and analysis — and not just because of Trump.

“Back when we had five newspapers in Washington you could afford to have a democratic paper, a republican paper, a liberal/conservative [one], and because we consolidated to the point where we only have one or two papers per city, some cities don’t even have one, they had to be more mainstream and appeal to people across ideological lines,” said Baker. “And now with the proliferation of social media and cable, and so forth we’ve kind of fragmented again.”

Before Baker’s answer, I’d assumed News Analysis was a recent development, designed to counteract a President whose attacks on the press and misstatements are without ready historical precedent. I pictured News Analysis as The Times version of Twitter’s fact-checking label on Trump’s tweets, or the blue “Robust safeguards help ensure the integrity of election results” YouTube puts on election related videos. Baker’s etiology points to Wall Street rather than the White House, and to the shifting demands of consumers living in an ever-updating world. 

The lure of this argument is that the onus Baker accepts by augmenting fact with interpretation is lessened because readers can always turn to other news sources. By the time Baker can churn out an article, TV producers have impaneled a half-dozen political spin-doctor strategists and the twittersphere has already retweeted 20 threads about the news. This leaves us with a truth by arbitration process where every news source is incentivized to stand out by adding interpretation or opinion.

The real kicker is that the premise of News Analysis is that readers think less as professional reporters interpret facts. This implies these same readers will then be less able to navigate the fragmented media landscape and find the truth from the dueling voices on Twitter, cable and papers.

*****

When the tide is low and the weather is good, I’ll head out on a long run to an inland bay a couple miles from home. I’ll usually make it to the bay just as the sun starts to set below the nearby apartment complexes. Each home gaping out at the bay with a giant window offers a two-second glimpse into a different living room. People are usually busy at that hour, cooking dinner, washing out the day’s sand from towels, but I remember one guy who just sat there fixed in his leather La-Z-Boy watching Tucker Carlson. 

I saw him for two seconds, but there was something about that image, the tilt of the recliner, the worn VFW hat. My mind started filling in details. A mouth slightly ajar, the unblinking eyes. Tucker Carlson was talking and this man was listening, sitting back and believing every interpretative leap, open-ended question and leading contextualization.

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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