The New York Times' Dirty Work

The biggest story of last week was simply owned by the New York Times. The story featured devastating violations of ethical standards and serial failures to live up to a hard-earned reputation. It was almost bound to be a career-ender. And then there were the allegations the story made against Sen. John McCain. 

It is not surprising that journalists, media watchdogs and radio talk show hosts on the Right would cry foul. They, of course, have been on to the Keystone Kops of journalism for years, long before fabulist Jayson Blair proved that the Times lacked even the most rudimentary internal quality controls. What was novel was that the Times was now the target of liberal journalists cringing at the “transparent thinness of the reporting”  (Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum), journalism professors amazed that the paragon of American journalism had fallen so far, and even tabloids disgusted that the Times could not manage to piece together a decent sex scandal.

The reaction from the MSM was swift and merciless. After all, if the leader in their field were to be exposed as unprincipled and incompetent where would that leave the rest of them? People might begin to talk. Gossipers might even say that the entire crowd was –shocking as this may seem — agenda-driven and simply not credible. The Boston Globe, a sister paper of the Times, would not run the story, nor would the Seattle Post-Intelligencer which carries most Times’ stories. The Post-Intelligencer’s Managing Editor explained:

“To me, the story had serious flaws. It did not convincingly make the case that McCain either had an affair with a lobbyist, or was improperly influenced by her. It used a raft of unnamed sources to assert that members of McCain’s campaign staff — not this campaign but his campaign eight years ago — were concerned about the amount of time McCain was spending with the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman. They were worried about the appearance of a close bond between the two of them.”

Aside from the non-evidence of an affair he found any implication of political favoritism to be “pretty thin beer.” Thinner even than the slinky dress McCain’s purported paramour was wearing in the Times splashy photo.

Time magazine’s managing editor Rick Stengel said in an MSNBC interview his fine publications would not have run the story. Then, of course, The New Republic (which most observers believe spooked the Times into finally running its Drudge-leaked story from December) excoriated the Times and told its own tale of the Times’ internal battles and departures from its (quite apparently not so standard) standards. TNR (the authoritative voice on proper journalistic practices that brought us Stephen Glass and the phony Baghdad Diarist Scott Thomas Beauchamp) lectured:

“[W]hat’s most remarkable about the article is that it appeared in the paper at all: The new information it reveals focuses on the private matters of the candidate, and relies entirely on the anecdotal evidence of McCain’s former staffers to justify the piece — both personal and anecdotal elements unusual in the Gray Lady. The story is filled with awkward journalistic moves–the piece contains a collection of decade-old stories about McCain and Iseman appearing at functions together and concerns voiced by McCain’s aides that the Senator shouldn’t be seen in public with Iseman–and departs from the Times’ usual authoritative voice.”

That “authoritative voice” shouldn’t be much of a problem from here on out. And don’t take my word for it. Applebaum of the Washington Post commented: “Thanks to lack of evidence, the article reads not like an exposé but like an elaborate and extended piece of insinuation. Surely this must will damage the New York Times more than John McCain: Who will believe their reporting on him now?” Or on anything else.

Some suspected that this was just another example of anti-conservative sentiment or that that the Times was anti-female for playing into stereotypes about women in the workplace. That may be, but perhaps they are just “pro-affair.” After all, as New York Magazine reported, Executive Editor Bill Keller (who defended the McCain piece vociferously) had his own very public dalliance with a British reporter: “An affair…which shocked Keller’s friends. ‘I felt bad for everyone involved,’ says Stephen Engelberg, a former Times reporter. ‘This was not characteristic behavior at all. I wouldn’t pretend to be Bill’s psychologist, but he didn’t get a red sports car, so …’”

But mostly, the defenders of journalistic excellence expressed nothing short of amazement that the Times would not live up their expectations. “This is a story that rests on the suspicions, unproven, of unnamed sources,” complained Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism. “There really isn’t a lot of hard data, there seems to be innuendo and speculation, really it seems like an old story,” intoned Northern Arizona University professor Fred Solop. "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 York University journalism professor Jay Rosen told Huffington Post.

A few savvy critics even pointed out that the Times did not seem to be playing by its own rules. Its ethics policy, after all, states: “In routine interviewing — that is, most of the interviewing we do — anonymity must not be automatic or an assumed condition. In that kind of reporting, anonymity should not be offered to a source. Exceptions will occur in the reporting of highly sensitive stories, when it is we who have sought out a source who may face legal jeopardy or loss of livelihood for speaking with us.” Did this story really fit that exception, or did it sound more like a partisan or personal attack? Wasn’t it the very kind of story the Times says should not rely on anonymous sources. (“We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack.”)

It’s just not what the liberal establishment has come to expect of their grand dame, after all. In fact, a majority of the more than 2000 online comments (presumably from people who actually read the Times) vilified the Times for letting these poor souls down. They were “sad” and “disappointed” and lectured the Times that its tale was not fit to print.

How did the Times respond to this onslaught from its own readers? Keller came out with this gem: “In all the uproar, no one has challenged what we actually reported.” (Huh?) The Times editors and reporters then engaged in an online Q and A with readers, revealing that they have either no regard for their readers’ intelligence or no sense of  what is newsworthy. Keller suggested the story was no big deal or his readers were dense, insisting: “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.” 

The larger point of the story? Is Keller being coached by Dan “Fake but Accurate”  Rather?

But the real dirty work was left to Managing Editor Jill Abramson who wrote this one: "Documents are always useful in reporting, but they are not required. The Times story was not about a romantic relationship.” Well that clears up that one, and you can just disregard the photo of the lobbyist in the slinky gold dress. (Abramson is, you may recall, half of the tag team with Maureen Dowd who years back thought it a boffo idea to run the Kitty Kelly trashy tale of an alleged Nancy Reagan-Frank Sinatra affair on the front page.)
Ultimately not even the Times believed the Times. The ombudsmen wrote:

“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.

It was not for want of trying. Four highly respected reporters in the Washington bureau worked for months on the story and were pressed repeatedly to get sources on the record and to find documentary evidence like e-mail. If McCain had been having an affair with a lobbyist seeking his help on public policy issues, and The Times had proved it, it would have been a story of unquestionable importance.”

The ombudsman inquired as to what business he had running a sex story without proof of the sex. When Keller lamely answered that this was not the “point of the story,” the ombudsman tartly called this ignoring “the scarlet elephant in the room.”

McCain looks like he will survive this (his campaign is $2M richer after raising money from an email touting the brush with the Times), but now one wonders if Keller will.

But the lowest blows perhaps were leveled by folks who know a thing or two about a good scandal story. The doyenne of juicy scandal stories, Lucianne Goldberg, put it bluntly: “The Times had four reporters working on this for months. They’ve shaken the trees bare, and there’s not a leaf left in sight. I think it will backfire badly on them.”

The New York Post, which the Times crowd surely holds in low regard, had to remind their Gotham brethren that: “This was no failure to live up to high standards. It was a drive-by shooting masquerading as a newspaper story. Indeed, the 3,000-word piece — written by a team of four reporters after months of ‘work’ – was long on innuendo, thick with anonymous sources and shockingly short on substantive facts.” Michael Goodwin of the New York Daily News (which regularly tormented Rudy Giuliani with tabloid tales of his affair with Judith Nathan) lectured: “It is a meringue of tantalizing hints and innuendo about the steamy nexus of sex and power. It’s all there — except a clear and firm direct allegation, let alone proof.”

Well the Times really should be proud: they have gotten conservative media, the MSM, journalism professors and tabloids all singing the same tune. Who says the Times isn’t influential?