What the Times — and others — missed

It’s been a tough week for the New York Times, but let’s give the newspaper credit for this: it employs an ombudsman who has no problem telling the bosses they got it wrong, and the paper has no problem — apparently — allowing him to do it in public. The Star Tribune once did the same thing (who can ever forget Kate Parry’s Sid Hartman “the rules don’t apply to me” column?).

Clark Hoyt, the Times’ ombudsman has rendered his verdict in the case of the John McCain story:

“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.”

That, of course, leaves only this question: Why on earth don’t the folks who put the article together, and the Times’ blogging apologists understand this? We’re not talking about the Boofus Bugle.

As Hoyt said, without the sex angle, the Times was on to a good story about cronyism, something that local media critic Brian Lambert pointed out.

Here’s what I hear from people in the business, including some people in my own newsroom : “if the Times didn’t have the goods, they wouldn’t have gone with the story.” In his otherwise solid post, Lambert said, “The New York Times would not have trotted out this angle if they didn’t have plenty to back it up.”

Whether that’s true or not is irrelevant to the central fact that, as Hoyt says in the following paragraph, failure to follow the best two-word guideline for journalists — prove it — violates basic standards.

“…If you cannot provide readers with some independent evidence, I think it is wrong to report the suppositions or concerns of anonymous aides about whether the boss is getting into the wrong bed.”

  • Tim Neal

    I read the Times story. Only a small part of it dealt with the the possible affair. The troubling part to me is John McCain was supposed to be “different”, opposed to the influence of the lobbyists. Turns out he used his position to influence the FCC and the commerce committee. The so called third estate has been sold out to a few people, with the blessing of the FCC, who feel no responsibility to provide important information to the public. The people own the radio and TV frequencies we are supposed to receive accurate balanced information in return for their use.

  • GregS

    The two word guideline for journalism outside the NYT is “prove-it”. Inside the NYT, the two word guideline is “Punch Sulzberger”.

  • Bob Collins

    Yes, I think that’s what Hoyt was saying. And Keller was insisting it wasn’t about a romantic relationship, but a pattern.

    But, as Hoyt pointed out, they didn’t need the “blond woman” tease full of innuendo, to detail those periods which were a little better established.

    The phrase that really sticks in my craw is “behave inappropriately.” As Hoyt pointed out, there was no explanation for what that mean. Made a phone call, changed a law, had sex? What?

    That’s the thing. It wasn’t a very well written or very well edited article.

    I mean, geez, the fact that people still disagree about what it was about proves that.

  • Bob Collins

    Tim, the FCC requirement is to operate “in the public’s interest.”

    The oversight of content by the government, while it applies to broadcasters, does not apply to newspapers. They are protected by the First Amendment.

    Those protections do not fully extend to broadcasters.