Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On The NYT McCain Fiasco

Here is a copy of my response to the now notorious NYT piece on John McCain's lobbyist associations. I sent this on the afternoon of Feb.22, before the appearance of NYT Public Editor Clark Hoyt's column on the same subject. Hoyt came to rather similar conclusions.

To the Editor:

I continue to struggle to make my mind up on this article. I am inclined to wait to see what new facts emerge before reaching any final judgment. My guess--and my hope--is that The Times knows more than it is yet prepared to publish, and that further facts are yet to emerge to fill in the story. If that is incorrect, my judgment will be more harsh.

I appreciate the detailed examination of Senator McCain's contacts with and responsiveness to lobbyists for the rich and powerful of corporate America, particularly given his powerful role as (former) Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee. The new wrinkle, given Senator McCain's self-promoted image as a crusading reformer, is that he is apparently so convinced of his personal rectitude that he is largely oblivious to situations that would raise legitimate concerns if they involved others. That is a recipe for disaster, particularly in a potential President. An article effectively raising and shedding light on this issue is clearly justified.

My concern is with the series of decisions made on how to play the "romantic"/sexual innuendo piece of the story. I think this aspect was peripheral, rather than central, to the main focus of the story. While it did, to some degree, advance the central thesis of the story, it was predictable that attention paid to the sexual angle would overwhelm everything else, as has in fact been the case. This was made significantly more likely by the decision to play this issue at the top of the story, despite the lack of harder documentation and identified sources. In an effort to play it cute--or perhaps to avoid legal attack--The Times highlighted the salacious sexual innuendo, with its predictable impact on the privacy of the individuals concerned, while seeking to avoid responsibility for stating and proving its case. The added news value of the suspected romantic relationship seems to me insufficient to justify playing this aspect at the top of the piece, as opposed to leaving it out altogether or running it much deeper in the story, as an illustration of concerns raised by McCain's closeness to lobbyists.

I can imagine a response saying that would amount to burying the lede. But that is precisely my point. If the lede is to be the romantic/sexual allegation, than state your allegation and prove it, using more than anonymous sourcing. If you are unable to do so, and are not able to name your sources or provide more in the way of proof, than this does not belong anywhere near the lede, and perhaps not in the story at all.
Can you explain the news judgment that you feel justifies organizing the story as you did?

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