Questioning the Times

So, who was the source of the New York Times’ story on John McCain?

David Brooks guesses today that it was John Weaver, a former McCain aide who left on bad terms. Weaver, according to Brooks, claims it’s somebody else. But Brooks says he checked the theory out:

“I checked that possibility out, and it doesn’t hold water. But while calling around to a dozen senior McCain friends and advisers Thursday, what struck me was the enormous tragedy of the rift. They all love McCain. They all say it is absurd to think he abused his power in the way that is alleged. But the rift is like some primal sore. It affected every conversation I had Thursday, as it has infected McCain efforts again and again over the past many years.”

At least we know who it’s not.

The situation, as you’ve heard, has put on the hot seat the Times’ editors and the general policies of when to use anonymous sources.

Executive Editor Bill Keller went on All Things Considered last night to do some damage control.

“It’s not a ‘gotcha’ story about some kind of quid pro quo,” he says. “We don’t know if there was a quid or a quo in this case. What we do know is that people very close to him, who watched him day after day, were worried enough by his behavior that they felt that he was endangering his career.”

Keller says the Times was unable to prove there was a romantic relationship and so instead they approached the story from an angle that people close to him were concerned there was a romantic relationship. Oh. That’s different? In other words, a guy who’s “just sayin'” is a good enough story now?

Where have we heard of a place for this sort of stuff? The land of blogs, a place Keller visited last year in a speech in London that ripped on that method of “journalism,” and distinguished why the Times is different.

“We believe in a journalism of verification rather than assertion, meaning we put a higher premium on accuracy than on speed or sensation. When we report information, we look hard to see if it stands up to scrutiny.”

and more to the point…

“We believe in transparency – that is, we aim to tell you how we know what we know, to attribute our information as much as possible to named sources, to rely on documentary evidence when we can. When we need to protect our sources, which is often necessary to bring you information powerful people don’t want you to know, we should explain why we regard the information as credible, and whether the source has an axe to grind. As my math teacher used to say, we show our work.”

If Brooks is right, the Times source was a person “with an axe to grind.” The story never so indicated, putting Keller in a position that is akin to saying, “just trust us.”

Jay Rosen at Press Think is nervous. And when journalists are nervous about journalism, that’s a bad sign:

… 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. … But watch for Clark Hoyt’s next ombudsman column. I would not be surprised at all if he comes out with a verdict esssentially saying: you didn’t have it.”

Another concerned journalist is David McCumber, the editor at the Seattle Post Intelligencer. His paper took a pass on the story

This story seems to me not to pass the smell test. It makes the innuendo of impropriety, even corruption, without backing it up. I was taught that before you run something in the newspaper that could ruin somebody’s reputation, you’d better have your facts very straight indeed.

“Nailed” would be one way to describe that.

The Washington Post ran its own story a few hours later. It was less contorted and easier to follow. Still based on some anonymous sourcing. It did bother me a little today when Len Downie, like Keller an outstanding editor, said The New York Times story “helped” them get their sources to confirm certain things and enable them to run their story. That seemed a little co-dependent in terms of sourcing.

Others will point out that the story wasn’t about an affair, per se. It was about the perception of ethical lapses; a claim that simply has to be accompanied by a wink.

The timing for our group session on ethics in online journalism couldn’t be better.

  • bsimon

    Some argue that – innuendo by the Times aside – the story is really about doing favors for lobbyists rather than hanky-panky. Even then, there still isn’t much of a story.

    (Collins: I think it was Lambert who characterized it as a story about the Keating 5 “with a blond chaser.” The positioning of the story is pretty stranged. It opens with rumors of an affair you can’t prove, recycles factoids of past apparent ethical lapses, and then ends with rumors of an affair you can’t prove.

    My guess is how people view the journalism COULD be linked to whether they favor John McCain, or not. That would be a shame. The two should not be linked.)