Public Editor Clark Hoyt evaluated two tough political stories in the Sunday Week in Review, one anti-McCain, the other anti-Palin. While he found the McCain piece fair, he faulted the anti-Palin piece. In both cases, Times reporters and editors rallied to the defense of the pieces, finding McCain guilty of "demonstrable falsehoods" and Palin of "sometimes petty, peremptory" political leadership in Alaska.
When a newspaper like The Times takes a tough, critical look at a candidate in this year's presidential election, it has to give readers enough solid evidence to make up their own minds about whether it is being accurate and fair. Consider two front-page articles last weekend: I think one delivered the goods and one fell short.
The first, in Saturday's paper, reported that John McCain had drawn "an avalanche of criticism" from Democrats, independents and even some Republicans "for regularly stretching the truth" about Barack Obama's record and positions.
Without relying on others to make the charge, the article declared that the McCain campaign had "twisted Mr. Obama's words" to suggest he had compared Sarah Palin to a pig. It also stated that McCain himself had "falsely claimed" that Obama supported comprehensive sex education for kindergartners, had "repeatedly and incorrectly asserted" that Obama would raise taxes on the middle class, and had "misrepresented" Obama's positions on energy and health care.
Hoyt quoted a Times editor:
But the Times article was built on a solid foundation of fact, and Richard Stevenson, the editor directing coverage of the election, said, "We don't want to fall into the trap of false equivalency." He said reporters had seen a pattern of "demonstrable falsehoods, exaggerations, misconstruals or omissions" on the part of McCain that seemed notable, even for a heated presidential campaign. While the article said that Obama's "hands have not always been clean in this regard" - he "incorrectly" said that McCain supported a hundred-year war in Iraq, "distorted" his record on school financing and took economic comments "out of context" - the brunt fell on McCain because of his large number of misrepresentations recently.
That echoes the notorious memo from then-ABC News political director Mark Halperin during the heat of the Bush-Kerry contest in October 2004, bemoaningthe myth of equal accountability of both partiesand urging his staff to "step up" and "serve the public interest" by defending Kerry against Bush attacks:
....the current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done.
Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his efforts to win.
We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn't mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides "equally" accountable when the facts don't warrant that.
I'm sure many of you have this week felt the stepped up Bush efforts to complain about our coverage. This is all part of their efforts to get away with as much as possible with the stepped up, renewed efforts to win the election by destroying Senator Kerry at least partly through distortions.
It's up to Kerry to defend himself, of course. But as one of the few news organizations with the skill and strength to help voters evaluate what the candidates are saying to serve the public interest. Now is the time for all of us to step up and do that right.
Back to Public Editor Hoyt's column from Sunday:
Jim Rutenberg, one of two reporters who wrote the article, said he felt comfortable describing McCain's false, incomplete or misleading statements in declarative fashion because The Times had independently reported the facts and given them to readers. The false charge that Obama supported comprehensive sex education for kids in kindergarten had been refuted two days earlier in a "Check Point," the newspaper's vehicle for assessing the accuracy of campaign claims. A chart with the Saturday article compared McCain's charges on taxes, energy and health with the facts.
Journalist Byron York actually did some research on the bill and came to an opposite conclusion - that McCain was right: "The fact is, the bill's intention was to mandate that issues like contraception and the prevention of sexually-transmitted diseases be included in sex-education classes for children before the sixth grade, and as early as kindergarten."
Hoyt did find reason people might find the Times unfair to conservatives in its negative would-be expose of Palin's political style in Alaska:
It began with a sweeping assertion: "Gov. Sarah Palin lives by the maxim that all politics is local, not to mention personal." Scott Blum of Atlanta said, "To justify stating this conclusion so forcefully in a front-page news article, the body of evidence had better be so compelling that most reasonable people would agree." But Blum found the article "largely one-sided" and unconvincing.
I think it presented a series of unflattering anecdotes, some confusing and incomplete, but never made the connection between style and results necessary to judge a politician who was overwhelmingly re-elected mayor and has an 80 percent approval rating as governor.
Hoyt quoted Times reporter Peter Goodman, who worked on the story, saying it was "fair, deeply reported and solid to the point that the McCain-Palin campaign has not challenged a single fact," and Executive Editor Bill Keller, who defended it:
The story demonstrated "a style very personal, sometimes petty, peremptory, and a style that demands a high degree of loyalty," [Keller] said. "That tells you something about somebody who might be president."