The only thing more shocking that the New York Times printing salacious innuendo about a presidential candidate is its editor not understanding why this caused controversy. I’m not sure whether he’s isolated or clueless or issuing cynical spin.
I was gobsmacked reading the story when it came out. I didn’t blog on it because Jay Rosen did a great job succinctly dissecting its issues and implications and so I linked to him.
But I was even more astounded reading later that Times Executive Editor Bill Keller is surprised at the reaction to the story. In the paper’s effort to respond to its many, many critics, Keller says they “expected the reaction to be intense” and he tries to dismiss and discredit that reaction as “a time-honored tactic for dealing with potentially damaging news stories” rather as than righteous denial. But then he goes on:
Personally, I was surprised by the volume of the reaction (including more than 2,400 reader comments posted on our Web site). I was surprised by how lopsided the opinion was against our decision, with readers who described themselves as independents and Democrats joining Republicans in defending Mr. McCain from what they saw as a cheap shot.
And, frankly, I was a little surprised by how few readers saw what was, to us, the larger point of the story. Perhaps here, at the outset of this conversation, is a good point to state as clearly as possible our purpose in publishing….
How could he possibly be surprised at the reaction to the Times all but accusing John McCain of having an affair with a lobbyist? How could he credibly be amazed at the reaction to the Times doing this without evidence except for the views of anonymous and admittedly disgruntled former aides saying they were convinced — convinced is the word the Times used — of an affair without them giving evidence? Can the editor of the Times possibly be this blind to the implications of what the paper did?
But Keller tries to tell us that we’re concentrating on the wrong thing here, that we don’t see what the real story is. He says it’s a narrative about McCain’s life. Keller’s deputy, Jill Abramson, also lectures us about missing their point:
Documents are always useful in reporting, but they are not required. The Times story was not about a romantic relationship. It was about a senator who had been embroiled in scandal, then rebuilt his career as a reformer and concern among his aides that his relationship with Ms. Iseman was putting that career at risk.
Do they have no news judgment? The lede in this story was obvious to everyone but the Times:
Paper of record hints that Republican presidential candidate has affair with lobbyist with no evidence other than statements attributed to anonymous sources, who the papers admits are disgruntled former associates of the candidate.
That is the lede. That is the story. That the editors of the Times don’t see that is incredible — that is to say, not credible. They can’t be that clueless, can they? They can’t be that bad at understanding news and politics, public opinion and media, surely. So are they merely trying to spin us? Are they embarrassed at what they did? Are they trying to convince themselves as well as us that this sex story — the sort of thing these high-fallutin’ journalists would usually insist is the stuff of Drudge and blogs and tabloids — is just an illustration in their bigger point about the life and times of John McCain? Surely, they can’t thing we’re that dumb. Surely, they’re not that dumb.
That’s what throws me about this story. I can’t figure out what these Timesmen are thinking.
In any case, there can be no doubt that the Times doesn’t just cover the story, it is part of the story. Its coverage of not only McCain but also of Clinton (whom the editorial page and publisher may have endorsed but whom the newsroom clearly can’t abide) is material to the story itself. So we deserve to know more about how the Times is covering the campaign. We need to know what they’re thinking.
: LATER: In Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s appraisal of the metascandal, Keller once again tries to tell us what the story is when what he really has done is tell us what the story isn’t. Keller:
If the point of the story was to allege that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, we’d have owed readers more compelling evidence than the conviction of senior staff members. But that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was that he behaved in such a way that his close aides felt the relationship constituted reckless behavior and feared it would ruin his career.
The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately — an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof, like the text messages between Detroit’s mayor and a female aide that The Detroit Free Press disclosed recently, or the photograph of Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart’s lap….
A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.
The real elephant in the room: This was bad journalism.
: LATER: JigSaw sees some silver in the cloud over the Times (I’m rush, so please follow the link for more links):
I think some the impact of the Siegal Reports can be clearly seen here.
* When, in the history of the NYT, has it been held publicly accountable by thousands of readers using its own publishing tool (web site)?
* When, in the history of the NYT, has its editors and journalists engaged their readers in near-real-time two-way conversation?
* When, in the history of the NYT, could any interested reader engage its editors and journalists authoritatively using the NYT’s own publicly available Reader’s Guide, Confidential News Sources Policy, internal memos (Assuring Our Credibility) and accounts of their internal debates (More Flexibility and Reality in Explaining Anonymity)?
* When, in the history of the NYT, was there a NYT insider who would publicly tell its readers that the Executive Editor got it wrong?
The NYT should be embarrassed by the McCain story, but take pride in their public engagement.