Friday, February 22, 2008

The McCain-NYT affair

Was John McCain, the clean-government crusader, sleeping with an attractive blond lobbyist, 30 years younger than he, even while he ran for president as a reformer?

The newspaper world and blogosphere are still abuzz about yesterday's front-page New York Times story on McCain, particularly its implication that he had an affair in 2000 with a telecommunications lobbyist whose clients sought help from McCain's Senate committee. I saw the story yesterday but didn't read it until I noticed that my friend and old boss David McCumber blogged about his decision not to run the piece in the Seattle P-I. He wrote:

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.
After reading his post and the story I'm not sure I agree with McCumber, but he certainly looks prescient. His reasoning -- remember this was Wednesday night when the story moved on the NYT wire but before the public had seen it -- perfectly matched the massive negative (and, at the Times, unexpected) reaction from many journalists and from readers across the political spectrum. Responses on McCumber's blog post overwhelmingly support his call. I'm guessing he feels very good about his decision. (Locally, the Seattle Times ran the piece on its front page, without explanation.)

My response to the story was different than David's. While I agree that the paper didn't "convincingly make the case" of an extramarital affair, I don't think that was its purpose. I read the story as one in a continuing, enlightening series of backgrounders on the candidates, all focusing on some event or conflict in their past that shaped their characters or candidacy. This one carried that "Long Run" series bug.

In this case, as I read the story, the point was the dichotomy between McCain's defining (and by all accounts) sincere crusade against special interests and his occasional blindness to his own ethical lapses, real or perceived. The lobbyist relationship was seen as a piece of this puzzle, though not a big "gotcha," as was a nicely summarized and relevant rehash of the whole Keating Five fiasco that nearly killed McCain's political career.

To my mind that's good solid political reporting, the kind I would aspire to. Interestingly, I was just listening to a Terry Gross interview the other day with Jacob Weisberg, the Slate editor and author of "The Bush Tragedy," whose key point was that journalists need to do a better job of exploring candidates' character, not just their positions, in a presidential race. You can hear that interview here.

A bigger concern for me, one that McCumber also cited, was the use of anonymous sources in the Times article. As reporters and editors who have worked with me know, I'm generally opposed to anonymous sourcing, especially in political reporting. It's too easy a crutch, both for the sources and the reporters, and I think it is slowly eroding our readers' trust in newspapers. But I also think, as Times Executive Editor Bill Keller noted, that there are times when anonymous sourcing is warranted. Handled correctly and reported exhaustively, these are often the stories that give readers important information they could not possible get otherwise.

My guidelines, honed over the years and reinforced by my four excellent editors at the LA Times, are these. To justify granting anonymity:
  • The story must be of great significance
  • It must not be reportable in any way other than using the unnamed sources
  • The information must be confirmed by multiple independent sources or documents
  • The sources must have a good reason to remain unnamed, such as real, demonstrable fear of financial loss or of physical danger
  • The sources must be identified to the story's editors
  • The sources' reasons for requesting anonymity must be stated plainly in the story, and the sources should be identified as fully as possible
These are difficult standards to meet. It's a close call, I think, whether this McCain story meets that importance threshold, but from what I've read of the paper's reporting efforts, the sourcing was solid and justifiably cloaked.

For its own purposes, and considering again that this story was one in the continuing "Long Run" series, I think the Times was right to run the story. That doesn't mean that the P-I or every other paper receiving the NYT wire should reach the same conclusion. Without the context of the ongoing series, the McCain story feels a bit more like a gotcha fallen short, and so I can appreciate McCumber's decision not to use it.

One of the best things to come out of this dust-up, I think, is the glmpse it offers behind the newsroom curtain and the increasing willingness it demonstrates of editors to engage with their readers. In addition to McCumber's smart blog post and the resulting reader comments, Keller and other top editors and reporters at the New York Times have been answering readers' questions about the story today, part of the paper's regular and enlightening online "Talk to the Newsroom" feature. It's very interesting. You can read that here.

Finally, there has been a lot of smart media criticism about the story online, on all sides of the question. I'll point you toward Jack Shafer's defense of the piece in Slate, which I thought was pretty good.

What did you think of the story? Did it even register? I'd like to know.


kateco said...

I agree with everything Barack just said ...

Love your cloaking guidelines and I agree that the story in the context of the Long Run series is a different thing than the story running like breaking national news in another paper. Sometimes, it had a Washington-insider-column feel and without being part of the series, that's amplified.

The sad thing is that the story that got away, or was blown away, by the thin sourcing is a critical one: McCain has a history of being blinded by his own self-righteousness. This is important news for a world that's already had its fill of a blindly self-righteous republican in the White House.

It's there in the story at the NYT, but the 24-hour newsertainment networks didn't pick up the McCain-Bad-Judgement story -- they jumped on the hot lobbyist story. They wanted pictures of McCain and his spooky-eyed wife denying the hot lobbyist sex story. (Vignette, head shot of the lobbyist looking creepily like McCain's wife.)

Denying the sex and corruption details was a great way for the McCain campaign to avoid denying the judgment story. And, because key sources could be written off as no-name disgruntled x-employees, the denials have taken on a righteous tone, that newsertainment consumers hear as rightness. By now, we are very far away from the critical story. That's a shame; it's a good story.

I don't know the details about the timing. I am certain there are all sorts of big and little things about it that we won't ever know. Keller says they run stories when the stories are ready. He should know better than I. But, It did seem like this one could have been more ready, at least one more on-the-record source ready -- not because it is wrong to run with carefully vetted anonymous sources -- but because it would have been better for the bad-judgement story. In my fantasy news world (where they secretly use hot type) they would have run this story later this spring with another well-sourced example of this particular stripe self-righteous bad judgement, like what's brewing over McCain's tangle with the FEC.

As it is, GOP strategist Dan Schnur, noted, "John McCain can win a Republican primary against the New York Times." And that's the story right now.

Mark said...

Smart points, Kateco.

Janice said...

I thought the story was a good one and important to run, but not the story everyone thinks it is. I woke up that day to NPR telling me the NYT "broke a story" about a "McCain affair" and a McCain spokesperson saying it's unfortunate it ran but not denying it! I opened the paper a few minutes later expecting some big story on an affair. And was surprised to find a story about undue influence of a lobbyist, a completely different story than NPR told be about. (On Bill Maher last night he said the story was leaked by McCain to let everyone know he's hot.)

Rita said...

Interesting stuf, Mark. As a home-body-news-reader, knowing little about journalism, I saw the story as a weak, obvious 'Enquirer' type tactic. I hardly paid any attention to it. It's been the aftermath that has been interesting - the importance of candidates' character search, etc.

I really enjoyed following all your links and found a few more enlightening ways to spend my day - NPR with all its browse topics and Terri Gross interviews.

I liked your guideines on granting anonymity.

If nothing else, the story has fueled the media, for a while, with new fire.

Jason Bellamy said...

Mark: I'm glad that someone else still believes that anonymous sources should be the extreme exception to the rule.

I'm living in the land that made anonymous sources famous (Wanna see the actual parking garage where Woodward met Deep Throat? I can take you there!), yet the most frequent use of unnamed sources that I've ever encountered came in my two years in articles about the Green Bay Packers.

The chief offender was veteran reporter Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (I'm calling him out by name, because I think he'd actually take pride in it). More often than not, his stories included unnamed sources. And those stories were rarely of "great significance," at least not in my opinion.

Now, McGinn could argue that there was "no other way" to report these stories, I guess. Usually his unnamed sources were opposing personnel experts evaluating Packers players -- something they wouldn't do with their name attached -- and it's good journalism to get opinions beyond the team's positive spin zone. So I'll give him a pass there.

But what killed me was the lack of 'confirmability.' Sure, Personnel Dude X thought Player Y sucked. But was his opinion a sign of the norm or an exception to the rule? Was his quote merely the juiciest? Did the reporter even call any other personnel experts for their opinions? And, if so, how many? For the most part, as the reader, you never knew.

I'm sure McGinn's editors knew who he was talking to, and maybe he was fair about it. But as readers we were clueless. McGinn pumped out these stories so often (still does, I'm sure) that I wished he'd at least give his regular sources some handles. You know, that way I'd know that "AFC Cookie Monster" didn't like ANYBODY from the NFC no matter what, or that "NFC Yoda" was a source whose opinion I could trust.

I think what bothered me more than anything was that there was no longer even an attempt to write these stories any other way. That seemed lazy, at least. And a little shady, too.