Elections '08 Media Presidential Race

What’s Going On at the New York Times?


Upon rereading the the New York Times story about John McCain
and his possible infidelity/impropriety/imprudence…or whatever with lobbyist Vicki Iseman, what stands out to me, when you get right down to it, is how little there is of substance.

But the McCain story that’s causing all the recent talk
is not the only NY Times piece in the past week that presents itself as a juicy spiller of secrets then ends up being colossally undersourced and propped up mainly by innuendo.

There are also couple of perplexing pieces
about Barack Obama that have me, the New Yorker’s Henrick Herzberg and some of my journalism students all shaking our collective heads in dismay.

We’ll get to the other two in a minute. But first the McCain story:

The body of the John McCain article talks mostly about McCain’s
conscious choice to fashion himself as a Straight Shooter: the Man Whose Favors Cannot Be Bought. And then the writers get to the really damning part:

“He is essentially an honorable person,” said William P. Cheshire, a friend of Mr. McCain who as editorial page editor of The Arizona Republic defended him during the Keating Five scandal. “But he can be imprudent.”

Imprudent? Oh, no! Not that!!! The horror.

Surely there’s more. Yet, when it comes to the “beef” of the article, it keeps collapsing, like those sad, sick cattle in that awful beef recall-triggering video. The most the reporters seem to suggest is that maybe McCain enjoyed the attentions of Mrs. McCain-ringer Iseman a bit too much. (Or maybe not.) And perhaps in his conviction that he’s Mr. Squeaky Clean, McCain failed to eliminate anything that even smacked of conflict of interest. Alright possibly. But there’s no smoking gun. A damp water pistol, maybe. But that’s about it.

If there is a smoking gun, by all means trot that puppy out. But a whisper-filled story filled with what if’s and maybe’s from eight years ago? Come on!

Which brings us to the Obama articles:

In this week’s New Yorker, Hendrik Herzberg writes about the New York Times Feb. 9 article headlined “Old Friends Say Drugs Played Bit Part in Obama’s Young Life”. In the Times piece, the first two paragraphs are a tease about Obama’s “party life” leading the reader to believe that something scandalous is about to be revealed. Then, a full five paragraphs down from the top Times writer Serge Kovalesky finally drops the following bombshell about Obama’s drug use:

Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs,
though, significantly differs from the recollections of others [OMG! OMG! HERE IT COMES!!!] …..who do not recall his drug use. [WHAT????]That could suggest he was so private about his usage that few people were aware of it, that the memories of those who knew him decades ago are fuzzy or rosier out of a desire to protect him, or that he added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic.

In more than three dozen interviews, friends, classmates and mentors from his high school and Occidental recalled Mr. Obama as being grounded, motivated and poised, someone who did not appear to be grappling with any drug problems and seemed to dabble only with marijuana.

Say what???So, let me get this straight: After interviewing more than 36 people, the New York Times has discovered that Barack Obama may have smoked LESS of the devil weed in his youth than he has remembered in print? And, as Hertzberg puts it:

The news here is—what, exactly? That Obama, who now appears grounded, motivated, and poised, formerly appeared grounded, motivated, and poised? That his inner uncertainties, such as they were, were more apparent to himself than to others? That he was marginally less of a pothead than he has made himself out to be?

Now keep in mind this was a reasonably long, prominently-placed article
complete with a large photo of the youthful Obama looking suspiciously……young.

And on February 12, the Times ran another bombshell “investigative” article
about Barack Obama. This remarkably source-free story written by Ginger Thompson suggests darkly:

Aides to Mr. Obama, who asked not to be identified because the campaign would not authorize them to speak to the press, said he stayed away from a civil rights demonstration and did not publicize visits to black churches when he was struggling to win over white voters in Iowa.

But that’s not all:

[Obama chief strategist] Mr. Axelrod said he had learned there was “a certain physics” to winning votes across racial lines. Previous campaigns by African-Americans — the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton — had overwhelmingly relied on black support that wound up defining, and confining, their candidacies.

By contrast, from the moment Mr. Obama
stepped onto the national political stage, he has paid as much attention — or more, some aides said — to a far broader audience. [OMG!!!! Really????? How shocking!!!] “He believes you can have the support of the black community, appealing to the pride they feel in his candidacy, and still win support among whites,” Mr. Axelrod said.

Questions about Mr. Obama’s “blackness,” though, quickly threatened to obscure
the reasons he believed himself most qualified to become the country’s next president…..

Oh, horsepucky.

Again, the Times huffs and puffs as if to blow down at least a wing of the house of some candidate or other—in this case Obama— and comes up with…jack all. Okay, they’ve uncovered the he fact that race sometimes enters into or affects the campaign of the country’s frontrunning African American presidential candidate, and that mostly he tries to rise above it but occasionally makes strategic decisions. Ya, think??? Move over Woodward and Bernstein.

Listen: I don’t want to see John McCain become president.
But if he loses, let him lose for a real reason. Not because the New York Times feels that the best way to boost their falling readership is to turn into a gossip rag.

Admittedly, when the NY Times is good it’s very, very good indeed.
But when it’s bad….it gives us war-hawking Judy Miller and, to a hopefully less consequential degree, the claptrap outlined above.

It’s not pretty, and it’s not good journalism.


  • When it comes to The NY Times, I’m glad that you’re coming over from the dark side. Yellow journalism is where the Times (urinates) all over journalistic ethics.

  • I was going to write about how the clowns who quote stuff from pigstyes of journamalism like Neil Boortz, Malkin, FOX, the talk radio circuit, NewsMax, etc. – and who fail to credit the Times for helping them get their Clinton scandals and their Iraq war on would chime in shortly with “I told you so.”

    But of course, they beat me to it so it’s a comment on some combination of absurdity, irony and profound lack of even a tiny shard of self-awareness, not a prediction.

  • I think it’s interesting that a lot of “nuanced” critique of the Times’ reporting has been generated across the liberal blogosphere (along with the expected exhultation at trouble for McCain’s reputation.) This gives the lie to (a) the notion that liberals are lockstep with their media masters and (b) that the liberal critique of the mainstream media is about political bias as opposed to issues over the quality of journalism and the generally bad habits of too many journalists (despite an apparent tendency among the elite of the profession toward some degree of social “liberalism”.)

  • reg doesn’t know that opinion radio and blogs have different goals and standards than does a leading newspaper claiming to report facts.

  • Ohh, this could be embarrassing: Glass Houses

    (McCain) also explained that he had spoken with Times Executive Editor Bill Keller in an attempt to set the record straight and persuade the paper to spike the story. Keller appears to have made the decision to run it.

    This is where it gets interesting.

    In a September 2006 New York magazine story, journalist Joe Hagan described the circumstances behind Keller’s marriage to his second wife, the French gin-namesake Emma Gilbey (who is also an ex-something of U.S. Senator John Kerry, but I digress…) and his divorce from National Public Radio reporter Ann Cooper.

    Here’s the important bit from the 2006 New York piece:

    … Keller wrote one last piece on South Africa, an article for the Times Magazine about Nelson Mandela’s wife, Winnie, in which he cited a book called The Lady: The Life and Times of Winnie Mandela. The following week, the magazine published a letter by the book’s author [Emma Gilbey] …

    After reading the letter, Keller called Gilbey, a British journalist living in New York, and asked her to coffee at the Times cafeteria. Gilbey, at the time, had a reputation as something of a power-dater; her exes included Senator John Kerry and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. An affair ensued, which shocked Keller’s friends. “I felt bad for everyone involved,” says Stephen Engelberg, a former Times reporter. “This was not characteristic behavior at all. I wouldn’t pretend to be Bill’s psychologist, but he didn’t get a red sports car, so …”

    … Two years after they met, Gilbey was pregnant, Keller was divorced from Cooper, and he had a new job as [Times] managing editor.

  • Woody is half right. And so is Ben Smith. Its true that TPM and FIREDOGLAKE (to name two blogs with investigative reporting smarts – just ask the George Polk Committee) are dubious on the claims of sexual improprietry (and don’t particularly care anyway) but they’re all over the lobbyist connections. Christy Hardin Smith of FDL is on that as she told Rachel Maddow tonight and, when last seen, was the “Go to” Gal on the “Scooter” Libby trial and recognized as such by the MSM reporters covering that story. As for TPM, they really broke the USA firings (as the Polk recognized) and are turning their attention to McCain’s lobbying as well as his public financing shenanigans.

    Sorry Dem Operatives. You won’t get a smear. You’ll get something more devastating: real journalism that will puncture St. John McCain’s shiny armor. And to think it will come from those dirty f**cking hippies on the “Fachist” Internet (see Lee Siegel and Matt Bai)!

  • I think rlc’s take on this is right. What appears to be happening is that McCain’s having surrounded himself with lobbyists will become the “legitimate” story. It’s just a damned shame that it took the media biting at the heels of a “sex scandal” to finally edge the spotlight onto the everyday doings of their darling John McCain. I’m thinking that the Times is going to have to run with some real goods and dig deeper into McCain’s “anti-lobbyist” hypocrisy in order to try to pick up the pieces of their innuendo about the old bombadier dropping unauthorized payloads in friendly territory.

  • See today’s WaPo with stories on both the campaign finance mess and the lobbyist question. Also Mike Issikof’s piece at NEWSWEEK on the Straight talker’s misquotes – others say “lies” – on his relationship with Paxson. Source of the contradiction – McCain himself in a 2002 deposition!

    This is going to get ugly folks and, meanwhile, Iraq is waiting in the wings.

  • And this is why Obama was smart to “fess up” about his early drug use. Every presidential candiate is going to have every skeleton, rumor and innuedo reported and investigated until we are bored sick.

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