Thursday, February 21, 2008

Stonewalling won’t cut it

Bill Keller and Len Downie owe their readers the full details about the timing and circumstances that caused them to publish today's innuendo-rich and fact-lite exposes on John McCain.

With blogs and pundits chattering about the possible motivations and machinations behind the New York Times article suggesting an improper political and/or personal relationship between McCain and lobbyist Vicki Iseman, it is not enough for Bill to kiss off thousands of critics by saying, “The story speaks for itself.”

In fact, as discussed more fully in a moment, it doesn’t.

And Len is on even shakier ground when he acknowledges that his matching story was rushed onto the web only after the NYT cleared the way. “We had elements of the story in story form,” Downie told Editor and Publisher. “When the Times story appeared on their website last night, we were able to talk to sources who gave us further information that made it able to be published today.”

Not only has the story itself been kicking around for a long time, but the story about the story has been making the rounds since before Christmas.

Back on Dec. 20, 2007, Matt Drudge reported that McCain “has been waging a ferocious, behind-the-scenes battle with the New York Times…to mount a bold defense against charges of giving special treatment to a lobbyist.” In reporting then that NYT reporters were arguing for publication of the piece at Christmas time, Matt said “editor Keller expressed serious reservations about journalism ethics and issuing a damaging story so close to an election.”

In a fascinating online article today that purports to provide the back-story of the McCain expose, New Republic correspondent Gabriel Sherman suggests that one of the reasons the Times finally decided to run the piece is because his magazine was about to publish an article questioning the whereabouts of the long-pending investigation.

To support this thin but delectable premise, Gabriel quotes Mark Salter, a McCain operative who told Time Magazine that the Times decided to publish the investigation “because the New Republic was going to run a story that looked back at the infighting there. [The Times] decided that they would rather smear McCain than suffer a story that made the New York Times newsroom look bad.”

(UPDATE 2.22.08: Gabriel today distanced himself further from Mark's theory. “That is the McCain campaign spin and we never set out to force the Times' hand or preempt the Times' piece,” Gabriel told E&P. “We were curious why the Times came close to publishing it and sat on it. We didn't try to force anything.”)

Although I happen to be more of an Obamocrat than a McCainiac, I found the NYT article, while explosive, to be fairly lightweight, as exposes go.

The Times story is crafted to lead the reader to the unmistakable, but unspoken, conclusion that the senator was having an affair with the lobbyist. But the article provides no more support for this notion than the fear of certain unnamed McCain aides that the relationship was “romantic.”

The Times story does a better job of demonstrating here that the senator was perhaps too vigorous in his advocacy for some of the lobbyist’s clients.

But the juiciest and best-documented part of the expose is its reprise of the senator’s shameless support of Charles Keating, the 1980s savings-and-loan figure who pleaded guilty to fraud. Although that happens to be old news, the episode is perhaps well worth remembering as McCain stumps for the White House.

Notwithstanding whatever illumination the Times and Post articles may provide, the circuitous and mysterious journeys the stories took prior to publication raise questions about how – and how well – two of the nation’s most prestigious newspapers report, edit and evaluate such potentially explosive articles.

Above all else, the timing of the publication of the articles during the election cycle demands a full explanation. Was the NYT piece ready before McCain clinched the nomination, as Drudge suggests? If so, why was it held? If it was not ready until now, what new information emerged since Christmas to qualify the Times article for publication? (We already know the Post published because the NYT did.)

With nothing less than the credibility of the Times and Post on the line, the editors of these newspapers owe the public the story behind their stories. Readers have a right to know.


Blogger Howard Owens said...

I just don't see how it can be ethically justifiable to use anonymous sources in a smear article.

The use of anonymous sources should be reserved for uncovering real government wrongdoing (and then only rarely, like once in a lifetime), not to poke into alleged affairs or other attempts at character assassination -- unless you're reporting on Britney Spears ... that's meant, btw, as an ironic poke at the likes of Bill Keller and plays off Jim O'Shea ... I'm sure Keller is loathe to report on Spears, but the McCain article is more like celebrity gossip than serious journalism.

And we wonder why readers hate us ...

4:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ethics and good reporting aside, I still don't understand why the Times endorsed McCain knowing what they ultimately reported - any ideas?

8:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Times owes its readers an explanation of why it violated its rule of not telling readers why it was providing anonymity to its sources. Do they have some sort of grudge against McCain? Are they political enemies? Were they passed over for promotions? Readers need this information so they can judge the veracity of these unnamed sources making these highly charged claims. The fact that the Times doesn't provide an explanation isn't a good sign that they are making a good-faith effort at journalism.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Peter Fisk said...

Wow, was that first comment from the same Howard Owens who recently wrote the following on his blog?

- Users aren’t interested in our deadlines and desire to make sure we have the full story before publishing what we know. They want to know what we know when we know it. They want their news now.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Howard Owens said...

Yes, and what the Times delivered wasn't news. It was rumor, gossip and innuendo. The very thing you accuse bloggers of bartering in, Peter.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Peter Fisk said...

Perhaps what happened, Howard, was that the Times staffers took your advice and were busy playing games on Facebook instead of handling the McCain story properly.

9:39 PM  

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