THE BLOG
02/25/2008 10:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bill Keller: "I'm Proud to Stand by This Story." Times Public Editor: You Were Wrong To Run It.

This weekend Clark Hoyt, public editor of the New York Times, told the Times what Ben Bradlee tells Woodward and Bernstein in one memorable scene from All the President's Men. "You haven't got it," the boss says about a draft of their story. The reporters try to argue back, but Bradlee cuts them off. "Get some harder information next time."

That is what Hoyt told Bill Keller and the Times staff in his column Sunday, What That McCain Article Didn't Say. Next time you decide to suggest that a leading presidential candidate had an affair that compromises his reputation and threatens his entire campaign, get some harder information. You cannot go with a story like that and base it on what anonymous sources believed. Your angry readers are right. And you were wrong to run it.

Ombudsman columns are rarely this definitive:

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.

It's hard to see how editorial judgment at the Times could suffer a defeat in the court of opinion that is more clear cut. Howard Kurtz yesterday: "A rough consensus is emerging among journalists that the Times story was fatally flawed." Keller on Friday: "I'm proud to stand by this story."

The judgment I made, same as the one Clark Hoyt made, and the one that Jeff Jarvis, Greg Sargent, Kevin Drum made, along with thousands of Times readers, plus many other journalists, including peers, differs drastically from the thinking of executive editor Bill Keller, managing editor Jill Abramson, and the Times staff that worked on this story.

Into that gap I offer these ideas.

The art of thinking politically

Readers often have more political sense than is permitted to editors of the New York Times, but editors of the Times do not necessarily know this. The most telling moment in Friday's Q and A with readers was Bill Keller's sense of shock. "I was surprised by how lopsided the opinion was against our decision, with readers who described themselves as independents and Democrats joining Republicans in defending Mr. McCain from what they saw as a cheap shot."

Cheap but consequential. Readers knew it would hurt the Times, boost McCain and re-ignite the culture war. Their political sense was stronger than Keller's. Why? Well, Times editors are extremely smart people prevented by their own codes from thinking politically. Yet those same codes permit intrusions into politics, like the Vicki Iseman story, that require them to think politically or risk terrible missteps.

When I say, "think politically," I do not mean "carry out a political agenda in the news pages." Full stop. I mean exhibiting common sense by recognizing the larger political realities in which you are a participant. I was watching MSNBC Wednesday night when they interrupted "Hardball" to bring viewers a live bulletin on what had just been posted at nytimes.com. What had just been posted, said the network, was a Times report suggesting that John McCain had an affair with an attractive, blond female lobbyist whose firm had business before his committee, and here's her picture....

No, no, says Bill Keller, waving his arms at us. Cut! What was posted that night was one installment in a biographical series called "The Long Run," where we examine key moments in the lives and careers of the candidates. This story was about an apparent contradiction in McCain's character: he wills attention to his own rectitude and yet allows appearances to compromise that image. His relationship with Ms. Iseman is a case in point. The story is not about a romance, not about sex. It's about the character of a man who would be president.

An enterprise-threatening event

The public editor had to explain it to him. In presidential politics, the suggestion of an illicit romance can be an "enterprise threatening event," as they say in corporate law. If the New York Times had uncovered an affair, and McCain's denial did not hold up, that would probably be fatal for his campaign. Which is why the news broke so big.

This automatically changes what the story is "about," Hoyt argued. Readers were not wrong to focus on the insinuations of an affair. That was the enterprise-threatening event! You cannot trigger a potential crisis like that using second hand information from eight years ago that you didn't confirm. It puts you in a weak position. "The stakes are just too big," said Hoyt. Which is exactly what I mean by thinking politically.

"They can't be that clueless, can they?," writes Jarvis.

They can't be that bad at understanding news and politics, public opinion and media, surely. So are they merely trying to spin us? Are they embarrassed at what they did? Are they trying to convince themselves as well as us that this sex story -- the sort of thing these high-fallutin' journalists would usually insist is the stuff of Drudge and blogs and tabloids -- is just an illustration in their bigger point about the life and times of John McCain? Surely, they can't think we're that dumb. Surely, they're not that dumb.

Jeff says he "can't figure out what these Timesmen are thinking." My suggestion: their codes often prevent them from thinking, and their peer culture spins that refusal as necessary and principled, even when it violates the reality principle. (On a related note, see my piece on mindlessness in the campaign press: Beast Without a Brain.) Listen to Jill Abramson explain why the stuff about an affair had to be in the story...

If the editors had summarily decided to edit out the issue of romance, because of possible qualms over "sexual innuendo" or some of the others issues cited in the reader questions, our story would not have been a complete and accurate reflection of what our sources told our reporters.

Now in the pages of the New York Times, readers can be told about "prosecutorial discretion," and they are expected to be grown-up enough to handle this wrinkle in how the world works. But when it's time for a lesson in Editor's Discretion suddenly all sophistication disappears, and we are supposed to believe that the Times had no choice: if sources said "romance" the story has to say romance.

But the readers who can handle "not every crime deserves to be prosecuted," are the same readers who understand that the New York Times did not have to say a word about the romance to publish the essentials of the story. Politically, they are miles ahead of where Abramson's explainer stands: wiser than their newspaper. This seems to me a kind of credibility gap. How are you going to explain politics to me, if you don't understand the politics of what you published last Thursday? (Times watchers of a certain age: perhaps you remember "a little wild streak" and ""I can't account for every weird mind that reads The New York Times.")

The character trap

Another factor involves the investigation of "character," a key word in Keller's explanations. I don't think journalists are particularly good judges of character in politicians. (Do you?) But making an "issue" of it forces them to be exactly that: good judges. How can you report on a politician's character without knowing what good character is within the sphere of practical politics? Yet journalists are naturally squeamish about making those judgments. It violates their code, threatens their political innocence, disturbs the illusion I once called the view from nowhere.

In order to prevent these code violations from seeming too flagrant, political reporters can rely on conventional morality. Obedience to that becomes "character." (Can't go wrong with the ten commandments, right?) Or they can try to judge a politician on grounds he himself has set out. Either way innocence in the press is restored to character coverage. The Times story relied on both methods. It had "thou shall not commit adultery" and "McCain holds himself up as...."

Information that violates self-asserted standards is seized on as revelatory in the character department, but part of the newsroom's enthusiasm for such discoveries is the insta-innocence factor: Hey, these aren't our standards, they're the candidate's own. Who can fairly criticize us for holding him to that? No one! Hah!

This may have given them a bit of false confidence.

The swamp of appearances

If reporting on "character" is an intellectual trap, so too with reports about "appearances." In the Q and A, Keller pointed out how McCain understood that "questions of honor are raised as much by appearances as by reality in politics." Somewhere along the line in an "appearances are reality" story, journalists will conclude that it doesn't matter if it happened, the appearance that it happened is enough to mean something or other. That might be one way you run with Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened... when you don't even know if the top advisers were right. The anxiety of the aides shows the power of appearances. Letting an appearance problem fester shows character flaws. It's both a swamp, and the appearance of one! And according to Chris Nolan of Spot-On, totally unnecessary.

Then there's the fact that the Times doesn't listen all that well. I base this on some experiences with (some) Times people, and their record in public controversies like this one. An amusing example came during Friday's Emergency Q and A with readers (see my Cliff Notes version of what the Times said there) when it took up a question identical to one I posed at Huff Post. Why did the Times endorse McCain when it knew this was coming?

Times people typically listen to your question with ears that have heard (they think) the same question a hundred times. It's sometimes hard to get them to concentrate on what you are actually saying because they are always jumping ahead to what they think your real agenda is-- and to illusions about the Times they can overturn for you. Here, they simply heard the question as the same 'ol one about the newsroom taking its cues from the editorial page. So they answered that, using political editor Richard Stevenson. ("...totally separate operations that do not consult or coordinate.")

When it came to the reader's actual question--why didn't the editorial page take better cues from the newsroom?--Stevenson said he had no idea, and wasn't the right person to be answering this at all. Which is funny. Here's the question from Debbie Collazo, Tucson, Ariz.

Why did The New York Times strongly endorse Senator McCain to be the Republican Party nominee in January, if at the same time the paper was well aware of and continuing to investigate what it considered to be front-page, damaging, "un-presidential" charges?

Times to Debbie: Why are you asking us!

Accountability and the cathedral of news

Like I said, they don't always listen well. But as Tim Schmoyer notes, the Times since 2004 has been getting steadily better at accountability moments and two-way dialogue. The most poignant part in the Q and A with readers was this question:

Hasn't The Times's defense of itself been too aloof and passive? Anyone who turns on the TV or radio, or logs on to the Internet is viewing a completely lopsided argument. Almost every commentator or guest denounces, curses, or at least questions the NYT, while there is nearly no push-back or defense from The Times. How can you allow yourself to be punching bags, but still convince the public that your controversial stories have merit?

Keller said it was a fair question, and he didn't know what the solution was. "We want to stick up for our journalism, but we resist becoming the story, and we especially resist seeing a long, painstaking work of reporting reduced to a war of sound bites."

I can well understand that.

Final note: I don't know Bill Keller, and don't claim to understand him. Watching him from a distance, and reading his explanations of things, I get the sense that he has accepted the need for transparency, intellectually. But he is pulled, as many at the Times are pulled, toward an opposite idea: the cathedral of news. The wish is for authority so strong it doesn't have to explain itself, or take questions from doubters. Those who are curioius have to watch the paper for what the paper decides to do next. This notion is not dead at the Times. It's the opposite of transparency. It's an idea about editorial mystique.

Let's not forget Keller's declaration on Thursday: "We think the story speaks for itself." The next day the Times was publishing 6,000 words that spoke further for the story that was to speak for itself.