This week's New York Times story on John McCain hinted at a political and sexual scandal. Brooke explains how the article's use of anonymous sources and innuendo made the The New York Times, and not just McCain, the focal point of the media's scrutiny.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The big media story this week involves John McCain and The New York Times. Here’s MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, ABC’s Jake Tapper and Fox’s John Gibson. [CLIPS] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] KEITH OLBERMANN: Our fifth story on the countdown: VickiGate, the Iseman trophy, the smear of the century, the scandal with no scandal there. You take your pick for the title. JAKE TAPPER: It’s exactly the last kind of story a presidential candidate wants on the front page of major newspapers, let alone a candidate who prides himself on ethics, integrity and standing up to special interests. JOHN GIBSON: The story has a lot of innuendo, very little proof, so in the end will it hurt The Times more than it will hurt McCain? [END CLIPS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: The story, published in Thursday’s paper, based largely on the testimony of unnamed former McCain staffers, suggests that some years back, the senator had grown too close to lobbyist Vicki Iseman. Those staffers reportedly confronted Iseman about the relationship, and even McCain himself, a claim he denies. The story also suggests that McCain may have done favors for at least one of Iseman’s clients.
The piece was the latest in a Times series about the lives of the candidates, called The Long Run. Serious questions were asked, but few definitive answers supplied.
The Republican National Committee answered by instantly firing off emails to open the pockets of the faithful, uniting them in their shared loathing of the Gray Lady. Even as vigorous a McCain-basher as Rush Limbaugh knew a common enemy when he saw one. [CLIP] RUSH LIMBAUGH: You are a Republican, and at some point the people you cozy up to either to do legislation or to get cozy media stories are going to turn on you. They are snakes. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some critics and pundits have defended The Times but many others have charged the paper with serving up thin gruel based largely on the testimony of anonymous, quote, “disillusioned staffers.” The biggest complaint levied by journalism watchdogs centered on the paper’s reliance on unnamed sources.
Times executive editor Bill Keller spoke to NPR’s David Folkenflik. [CLIP] BILL KELLER: Obviously, you would like to have not just on-the-record sources but documentary evidence for everything you put in the newspaper. But if you refused to publish stories that included anonymously sourced information, most of [LAUGHING] the important things we know about, you know, how our country is run would not get reported. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Times’ policy states that when using anonymous sources, quote, “We accept an obligation not only to convince the reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation.” We spoke to Al Siegal, one of the authors of The Times’ policy, in 2004. [CLIP] ALLAN M. SIEGAL: The more important the information is, the more tolerant we have to be about the inability to put names on it. And then there are public relations people who are just trying to cover their backs sometimes when they won't let you use their names, and there we quite simply should refuse to take information. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how important is this particular information? Important enough to create a cloud of compromise over a candidate running on the issue of character, important enough to risk a great newspaper’s reputation? Here’s MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. [CLIP] CHRIS MATTHEWS: The story here is that John McCain had an affair with a lobbyist and did favors for her. And that is a problem for him if that’s true. If it’s not true, it’s not a problem for him. It’s a problem for The New York Times. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: As Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism observed, we are not in an age of trust-me journalism. We're not. We are in an age of challenge-me journalism and check-me journalism. Subsequent reporting by other news outlets has begun to accumulate and quantify McCain’s connections with lobbyists. There are many. As for the romantic relationship the piece alluded to, that seems to be a story for another day, or never.
The Times seems to have decided that compelling political journalism must go beyond facts and airtight conclusions, that important insights come from just telling stories and letting the public fill in the blanks. But those blanks leave a great deal of space for error and confusion.
The story ran on Thursday under the headline “For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses its Own Risks.” The same could be said for The New York Times itself. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]