McCain, elections, ethics and smears

February 23, 2008

I’m watching with interest the American presidential primaries. I can’t make up my mind about Obama and/or Clinton. I’m inclined to argue that a vote for Barak Obama is more of a threat to the US political status quo than a vote for Hilary Clinton. It’s a judgment about whether race or gender is the more volatile fault line in the American psyche.
I tend to lean towards Obama and a vote for a black man over a white woman; mainly because white women were never tortured and murdered like African Americans, or suffered under the racist and segregationist Jim Crow laws. Though of course, if you go back far enough into American history it’s clear that witches were hated, feared and hunted down too during colonial times.

But today, I’m interested in coverage of the recent New York Times piece outlining some historical allegations that Republican candidate John McCain has a shaky record on conflicts of interest.

The Times has come under fire from other media, particularly the Fox network and the paper’s also had over 3000 email and blog questions posted by readers. I’ve read the Times piece and it seems reasonably balanced to me. It’s quite long and detailed, but critics say it relies too heavily on anonymous sources.

The paper justifies using anonymous sources on the grounds that the story was of great public interest and needed to be told. I have no issue with this; what I find more interesting is the question posed by a reader about the NYT’s endorsement of McCain. Here’s the exchange:

Why Did The Times Endorse McCain?

Q. Why did The New York Times strongly endorse Senator McCain to be the Republican Party nominee in January, if at the same time the paper was well aware of and continuing to investigate what it considered to be front-page, damaging, “un-presidential” charges?

— Debbie Collazo, Tucson, Ariz.

A. The short answer is that the news department of The Times and the editorial page are totally separate operations that do not consult or coordinate when it comes to news coverage and endorsements or other expressions of editorial opinion. We in the newsroom did not speak to anyone at the editorial page about the story we were working on about Senator McCain. They did not consult us about their deliberations over endorsements of the presidential candidates. I’m the political editor, and the first I knew of the McCain endorsement (and of the endorsement of Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side) was when I read them in the newspaper. In all of our internal discussions about the news story subsequent to the endorsement, I do not recall anyone bringing it up.

(As an aside, I think it’s fair to say that most of our political reporters would prefer that the paper not endorse candidates. Endorsements inevitably create the perception among some voters that The Times is backing a candidate on an institutional level, leaving those of us on the news side to explain over and over that our coverage is not influenced by what our colleagues on the editorial page write.)

As your question suggests, 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.

But it meant that there were a lot of people speculating for months about what kind of story we were pursuing and whether and when we were going to publish it. This didn’t influence the timing or the substance of the story at all, but I do think it created a situation in which opinions and battle lines about the story began to develop long before the actual story was published.

— Richard W. Stevenson, political editor

Sure, Richard, you can maintain the fiction that the newsroom and the editorial decision-making are at arms-length.
It’s the dialectic of the front page. The story is too big to ignore and you’ve got it as an exclusive, so go for it, but don’t pretend that Mahogany Row doesn’t know exactly what’s going on newswise and can intervene at any time.


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