McGuire on Media

McCain/New York Times story and anonymous sources

As I start this blog entry I am in between interviews with two local TV stations here in Phoenix about the New York Times story on Arizona Senator John McCain and his ties to a lobbyist, romantic or otherwise.

When I arrived at the office today I had made the decision I did not have much to offer on this story. I figured I’d leave the analysis  to the East Coast political mavens. I’ decided I’ d try to add value somewhere else.  Then my phone started to ring, and local reporters wanted to know my take on the ethics of the New York Times decision to run a piece so heavily dependent on anonymous sources.

Blogging on the brouhaha allows me to organize my thoughts from the first interview and to prepare for the second.

I always used to joke/opine/complain that editing a newspaper is REALLY HARD work.  I am positive Bill Keller would agree with that today.

You start the discussion of this piece with anonymous sources.  Of course, readers hate them.  Obviously, such sources give a platform to critics of the piece, McCain’s defenders. Anonymous sources make readers wonder if a story is even true, and they get justifiably curious about the motives of sources.

Just last night, in my sports media class, I taught about the use of confidential sources and relied on my old friends from Poynter, Bob Steele and Al Tompkins. When using such sources you start with whether this is a story of overwhelming concern, and then you ask if can we get this story any other way than by using confidential sources.  NYT obviously answered both in the affirmative. Dring my first TV interview I looked straight into the camera and said “I honestly don’t know what I would have done in this case.”  As I completed that interview and listened to my own yammering voice, I came to a more definitive conclusion.

The on-the-record quote from John Weaver that he met with Vicki Iseman, a telecommunications lobbyist,  gave me a lot of confidence there was concern among 2000 presidential campaign staffers about how a relationship with a lobbyist might appear to the public. This concern was enhanced by the fact the McCain campaign had made such an important issue of ethical propriety. 

It is second-guessing, I admit, but as I read and talked today I wondered if the suggestion of a romantic link between McCain and Iseman was necessary to the story.

Another one of the ethical points offered by Steele and Tompkins is “the information must be first-hand and verifiable.” From my vantage point it appears that the fact there was campaign concern about the “appearance of conflict” is first hand and verifiable.  While the NYT story says concerns about a romantic relationship existed, common sense tells us readers are going to believe the New York Times is alleging a romantic link. That’s the part of the story that will have legs.

I think the Times would have had a better, more defensible, story by going with the more limited lobbyist/ethics story than a story that implied romantic improprieties.

Now, as I just told a second TV reporter, that decision is a heckuva lot easier the day AFTER. Unlike Bill Keller last night, I am not sitting in an office knowing I face incredible pressure from staff, other media outlets and McCain’s campaign. That is a substantially different scenario, and not one I envy. With those considerations, I think Bill Keller’s decision was reasonable. It is only the privilege of hindsight that allows me to opine there might have been a better solution.

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