Times Editor: "Who Are We to Withhold" Our McCain Hit Piece "From the Public?"

The Times held a"Times Talks" event Tuesday night at TheTimesCenter (all one word), part of the new New York Times Building now dominating 40th and 41st Street in Midtown Manhattan like a behemoth power station. "Inside the News: The Issues & The Elections: Where Do the Candidates Stand?" was advertised as a sell-out, but there were at least 70 empty seats in the 373-seat auditorium.

From a low stage, Times journalists Richard Berke, Elisabeth Bumiller, Michael Gordon, David Leonhardt and Robin Toner took turns outlining the placement on the ideological spectrum of Clinton and Obama's various policies and advisors (McCain was often ignored). A bug kept zapping at the speakers in turn, to the amusement of the audience.

Around the 30-minute mark, moderator and Times Assistant Managing Editor (the title understates his influence) Richard Berke asked for a show of hands to measure support for the candidates. My very rough count in the darkened auditorium: 140 Obama supporters, 120 Clinton supporters, 50 independents and maybe half a dozen McCain supporters. Berke's follow-up call for Huckabee supporters drew derisive laughter.

Military correspondent Michael Gordon warned of the risk of increased sectarian violence in Iraq if Clinton and Obama really do pull troops out. (Gordon was chastised by his editors in January 2007 for daring to speak positively about the surge.)

Political reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, a frequent target of TimesWatch, said this about Bush's immigration plan:

"Bush proposed in 2005 a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws that got him in terrible trouble because it was considered by many to be humane and had a -" The rest of her statement was drowned out by audience laughter.

The second question during audience Q&A came from a British-accented NYU journalism student who criticized the merits of the paper's notorious McCain affair story. Richard Berke defended it:

We thought and still think that the story was important for people to know about. The reporters that we had on the story spent a lot of time and dug up a lot of information that, you know, we couldn't put it all in the story that gave us full confidence in what we had. And we felt it was important for people to know. I remember sitting there thinking, "How can we withhold from our readers the fact that there were these incidents of McCain's aides, worried to death about his involvement with this lobbyist, and going to intervene and having communications with them. Who are we to withhold that from the public?"

Berke said they "totally stand by" the story, and followed up:

"And so the storyline continued, but you'll notice the McCain people, despite other news organizations writing all we had, they still kept it against the big bad New York Times. As Elisabeth said, we're sort of an easy, popular target. So, they're just keeping it New York Times, the bad New York Times."