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Who's In Charge Here? - The NY Times McCain Story

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The online and offline media are inundated with opinions and stories about whether or not The New York Times should have published the recent front-page story about John McCain's alleged romance and ties to lobbyists. The medium has become the message in this brouhaha.

After two days of reading copious blogs and articles about The Times article, I've come away with the impression that the Gray Lady has grown old, confused, and lost its memory. Since many types of boats are named after women, I'll extend the metaphor and suggest that the Gray Lady is a vessel that has an incompetent captain who is letting the swabbies run the ship.

This notion first came to me when I read Jay Rosen's thoughtful (as always) blog on the Huffington Post in which he wrote, "there's one person who would have known about the paper's struggles with McCain and his lawyers over today's story, and who read and approved the paper's endorsements -- or should have. That is Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher. And so to ask, 'How does the Times endorse McCain with a story like that looming, if it believes in the story?' is to ask, at a minimum, what Arthur thought he was doing.'" The answer, of course, is that Arthur has no idea what he's doing.

Publisher Pinch let executive editor Bill Keller and managing editor Jill Abramson decide whether or not to run the McCain story with the befuddling headline "For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk." A headline and story Columbia Journalism School professor and media critic par excellence Todd Gitlin mocks: "With that most vapid of introductions (so bland that my eyes glazed over on first inspection), the editors tried to muffle the dynamite that they'd awkwardly stuffed into the nth reedit of their half-exploding bombshell about -- well, what was it about? (1) Intimations of an Iseman affair, or the 'appearance' of an affair, that his aides tried to scotch? (2) McCain's entanglements with lobbyists who cared a good deal about what he did as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee? Uncertain which way to turn, having not much of a story about (1) and (on the strength of the evidence they published) no smoking gun about (2), they squared the potato and ran with the hodgepodge."

What were Keller and Abramson thinking? Why did they open The Times up to such criticism? I think it's because the reporters, not the editors, run the newsroom after the editors screwed up over the Jason Blair and Judy Miller fiascoes. I suspect the reporters convinced Washington bureau chief, Dean Baquet, that the story was solid and that they would be scooped by the Washington Post and The New Republic if The Times didn't run the story after delaying for several months.

There has always been conflict between the Washington bureau and the New York newsroom, as Gabriel Sherman succinctly pointed out in his brilliant piece in The New Republic online "The Washington-New York divide is an eternal rift at the Paper of Record: Baquet had successfully brought stability and investigative acumen to the Washington bureau; with the McCain piece, he was being sucked into his first major struggle with New York." Yes, sucked in by reporters.

In his blog, Buzz Machine, Jeff Jarvis wrote about "Folio's report from its conference and a speech by Meredith president Jack Griffin. The fuller context: As a result, the company invested in its interactive and integrated marketing businesses -- spending roughly $600 million since 2002 on launches, acquisitions and building out its existing Web sites, Griffin said, as well as redefining its editorial hiring approach. 'We don't hire editors anymore,' he said. 'We hire content strategists.'"

What The Times newsroom needs is a content strategist to sit next to Keller and help him think strategically (something a good publisher could do, but, then The Times publisher is Pinch, the leader of the lucky sperm club, and not the leader of The Times). Keller has been beaten over the head so much in recent years from both the right and the left that the pounding has affected his thinking. He is trying to do good journalism, keep his angry reporters happy, stem circulation declines, and please a feckless boss -- too many balls to juggle to try to be strategic.

A content strategist might have advised Keller to think about the implications and timing of running the McCain story: (1) How would running the damaging story look after The Times endorsed McCain on January 25 for the February New York Republican primary? Would it reinforce the concept that editorial and news are independent or make Sulzberger look incompetent, as Jay Rosen implied, especially when on the Opinion page of the paper's website there still appeared pictures of Clinton and McCain, along with headlines trumpeting the paper's endorsements long after the primary was over? (2) How would using anonymous sources make The Times look after assistant managing editor Allan Siegal's 2004 internal report, which asked, "Can we otherwise squeeze more anonymous sources out of our pages? Can we make our attributions (even the anonymous ones) less murky? Are there some stories we can afford to skip if they are not attributable to people with names?" (from Jay Rosen's Press Think blog)? Wouldn't it open The Times to criticism of breaking its own rules, succumbing to tabloiditis, and getting down in the gutter with the NY Post?

A good content strategist would have advised Keller to run the story as part of The Long Run series (as The Times did) but to run it before the NY primary, just as it ran a Long Run piece on Clinton the day of the primary -- it would have been logical. Also, a good content strategist would have advised Keller to run the lobbyist connection part of the story, because that was consistent with the Long Run series the paper had done about other candidates, and to kill the alleged romance, because there wasn't sufficient evidence -- no seamen-stained blue dress.

But there was no strategy. Who's in change here?