February 24, 2008

Clark Hoyt, Conscientious Objector

On Thursday, New York Times editor-in-chief Bill Keller hysterically accused the John McCain campaign of "wag[ing] a war" on the Gray Lady simply by issuing a clear and calm denial of Keller's smear. If that's true, then give Times public editor Clark Hoyt conscientious objector status. Hoyt wants no part of defending Keller or his journalists, which he makes clear in a stinging rebuke:

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. ....

“If the point of the story was to allege that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, we’d have owed readers more compelling evidence than the conviction of senior staff members,” he replied. “But that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was that he behaved in such a way that his close aides felt the relationship constituted reckless behavior and feared it would ruin his career.”

I think that ignores the scarlet elephant in the room. 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. ...

I asked Jill Abramson, the managing editor for news, if The Times could have done the story and left out the allegation about an affair. “That would not have reflected the essential truth of why the aides were alarmed,” she said.

But what the aides believed might not have been the real truth. And 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.

Keller has tried to retreat on the sexual-affair front of his war ever since he launched that attack. He claims that the article wasn't about sex at all, but improper access. However, the lede of the article runs this explosive sentence before any other concerns: "Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself ..."

The Times can't retreat from that lede. Concerns over supposed favors all sprang from this supposed romantic interlude. The very plain implication of the piece was that McCain was doing favors for Vicki Iseman because she was providing sexual favors to McCain. Without that, where's his motivation to support her clients? A few plane rides, which were perfectly allowable under Senate rules at the time and which he properly disclosed?

Without the sex, there's no scandal. In fact, as the McCain camp pointed out, a look at McCain's record shows dozens of times when Iseman's clients got disappointed in his votes on the Commerce Committee. Even the one supposed intervention -- McCain's letter to the FCC -- doesn't demand a result favorable to her client, but just any decision on a long-overdue case, considered for over two years. Their one point of supposed corroboration, John Weaver, publicly repudiated the Times' version of his story, saying his intervention with Iseman had to do with her activities outside of McCain's presence, not her interactions with the Senator.

Even Lanny Davis called the charges baseless. That's Clinton administration official Lanny Davis.

Keller wants to beat a retreat from the salacious charges that have reduced his newspaper to the same status as a supermarket tabloid. Without that charge, however, no story exists. And with that reality, Clark Hoyt has no desire to march into battle at Keller's side.

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis is "gobsmacked" at Keller's refusal to see the journalistic malpractice. Jarvis suspects that it's just spin. Doesn't that also tell us something about the credibility of the New York Times under the management of Keller and Pinch Sulzberger -- that they find it necessary and appropriate to "spin" their readers, rather than report the truth?

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