Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2008/02/21/some_riddles_qu.html
February 21, 2008
For the New York Times, Too, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Risks
"From the looks of it, the paper is going to have to fight for its story--and its ethics--in the court of public opinion, but this is not something the Times is ever comfortable doing..."
New post! Public Editor to Bill Keller: “You Haven’t Got it.” (Feb. 25)
A few riddles, questions and observations about the story that everyone—including John McCain—is talking about this morning: For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk by four reporters at the New York Times…
- Lots of people will be asking why now? but my first question upon reading the story was different: why endorse? The New York Times endorsed McCain for the Republican nomination on Jan. 25, when it was clearly working on this story and had the basic facts in hand. The endorsement does not mention his image for rectitude, which today’s story assaults, but still, it’s an endorsement, an institutional seal of approval. If the facts in today’s article were not enough to make the Times re-think its endorsement, then why were they good enough for the front page of the paper, eight years after the events in question?
- UPDATE. Two people who work for the New York Times wrote to me with the same complaint: why was I raising questions about the editorial page’s endorsement of John McCain on Jan. 25 when I know—or should as a J-professor know—that the newsroom and the editorial page operate independently of each other and do not coordinate? My answer: there’s one person who would have known about the paper’s struggles with McCain and his lawyers over today’s story, and who read and approved the paper’s endorsements— or should have. That is Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher. And so to ask, “How does the Times endorse McCain with a story like that looming, if it believes in the story?” is to ask, at a minimum, what Arthur thought he was doing. But it’s more than that. Staffers who live the logic of their internal organization and its brilliant divides sometimes fail to see what the institution as a whole is saying. The Times endorsed a man it had reason to believe would face front page scrutiny like we saw today from the news section of the Times. It is not unreasonable to ask why. The two sides don’t need to coordinate if both read Drudge.
- UPDATE, FEB. 22. They let through this question during the Times live Q and A with readers, featuring editors and reporters who worked on the story. Why endorse when they knew this was coming? The A. talks about separation of powers, and the Drudge factor. “This particular situation was especially odd because most everyone in politics and journalism — including, I assume, our colleagues on the editorial page — knew we were working on a story about Senator McCain, courtesy of an item on Drudge in December. Whether that influenced the editorial page’s deliberations, I have no idea.” —Richard W. Stevenson, political editor. Check. And some people are asking: Why didn’t it influence…?
- Lots of people inside and outside the Times will be asking: did the reporters have the goods, enough facts to even run this story? (National Review’s Rich Lowry says no, and many others will be saying the same thing today.) The Washington Post essentially ran the same story today, minus the innuendo about an affair. It leads with the strongest fact to emerge from the Times account: that former McCain aide John Weaver had met with the women in question to ask her to stay away, a meeting—and an agenda—that Weaver confirmed to the Times and the Post. If there’s any “hard” news in these accounts to support the appearance of ethical taint, that is it. But the Post left out the, “Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened…” part, which makes the Times story far more explosive, and more of an event within the 08 campaign. Which makes me wonder why the Times didn’t run a G-rated version scrupulously free of tabloid stuff.
- According to the McCain camp, the “why now?” question is answered by the inquiries a reporter for The New Republic has made about infighting at the New York Times over this story. The New Republic says its story, by Gabriel Sherman, will be out later today. Sherman is a former reporter for the New York Observer who has shown he has sources inside the paper during two earlier episodes: the Judy Miller agonistes and James Risen’s wiretapping story, where the “why now?” question was extremely important, since it involved the 2004 election. Therefore we will soon know a lot more about the struggles over this story, which must have been intense. (Sherman’s article is now up.)
- On the question of “the goods,” when I read the story I expected… more. Any report alleging a damaging affair by a current presidential candidate needs to be air tight and locked down, especially when the events in it date from two election cycles ago. But for this purpose the Times has only anonymous sources; that makes me nervous. While any story like this says to readers, “trust us, we’re the New York Times,” this one puts the Times reputation more completely on the line because there is virtually nothing else for us to trust than the rectitude of the people running the paper. For, “Convinced the relationship had become romantic…” there is nothing we can check, no one we can ask, no digging we can do. That is why Pat Buchanan on MSNBC this morning was predicting a “war to the death between the New York Times and John McCain.” But watch for Clark Hoyt’s next ombudsman column— or his blog. I would not be surprised at all if he comes out with a verdict esssentially saying: you didn’t have it. (UPDATE, Feb. 24: that’s exactly what he did.)
- For lovers of culture war—and I am not one—there is almost nothing better than a story like this. The cultural right will go with its ultra-simplified story line: the liberal media wants Barack Obama to win and this is how it manifests. In a contest of strength, I think the discomfort over McCain as a conservative and candidate is weaker on the right than the resentment at an institution like the New York Times, and the mobilizing power of “liberal media intervenes in the election on behalf of its guy” is too great to resist.
- And the McCain camp made no attempt to resist. The statement it sent around to reporters is single malt culture war: “Well, here we go. We could expect attacks were coming; as soon as John McCain appeared to be locking up the Republican nomination, the liberal establishment and their allies at the New York Times have gone on the attack. Today’s front-page New York Times story is particularly disgusting - an un-sourced hit-and-run smear campaign designed to distract from the issues at stake in this election. With John McCain leading a number of general-election polls against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the New York Times knew the time to attack was now, and they did. We will not allow their scurrilous attack against a great American hero to stand.”
- Thus, the Politico’s report: Asked about the impact that the allegation of adultery would have among social conservative activists, some of whom still aren’t entirely sold on McCain, Black said they would see it as “the New York Times spreading rumors and gossip. We’re going to war with the New York Times, so they’ll probably like it.” Exactly. That’s why Will Bunch at Attytood says there was a story about McCain and lobbyists to be told, but the Times didn’t want just that. “Instead, we have a big mess that has galvanized conservatives and lowered the reputation of the media one more notch in the eyes of many.”
- For the New York Times, self-confidence on ethics poses its own risks, as well. From the looks of it, the paper is going to have to fight for its story—and its ethics—in the court of public opinion, but this is not something the Times is ever comfortable doing. It vastly prefers “the story speaks for itself.” (Which Bill Keller just said in a statement.) I don’t think that will be good enough in this case because the story speaks so thinly for itself, and because the paper has tried—without much success, I would add—to cut down on the use of anonymous sources, recognizing how much they put at risk. (From a 2004 internal report, “Can we otherwise squeeze more anonymous sources out of our pages? Can we make our attributions (even the anonymous ones) less murky? Are there some stories we can afford to skip if they are not attributable to people with names?”)
- UPDATE: On the fight-for-your-story front, the Times reporters are going to answer questions from readers, after 2,400 + comments on the story. (See my summary of it.) Bill Keller gave interviews to Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, and to NPR.
Posted by Jay Rosen at February 21, 2008 10:15 AM