Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Agreement From The Times’ Own Public Editor

Many bloggers, I among them, were quite critical of the New York Times 3,100-word piece, reported from Alaska, on Sarah Palin’s political career. My main take: the sweeping accusation which was at the heart of the piece (“she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance”) was never supported by the hodge-podge of one-sided and petty incidents described in the story. The Times’s own Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, agrees:

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.

After going through some of the story’s anecdotes and some readers’ complaints he concludes:

The article was researched by three reporters, including Peter Goodman, who worked for the Anchorage Daily News for several years and covered Palin in Wasilla. He said the story was “fair, deeply reported and solid to the point that the McCain-Palin campaign has not challenged a single fact.” But had the article focused on fewer episodes, giving more facts to paint a fuller picture, it might have better served skeptical readers inclined to think The Times is biased. After several e-mail exchanges with the reporters, I think they had the answers to many of my questions, and some of the answers were in early drafts of a long story that was cut to fit in the paper.

Bill Keller, the executive editor, Jill Abramson, the managing editor for news, and Matt Purdy, the investigations editor who handled the Palin article, defended it. Keller disagreed with my premise that the article should have gone into the results of Palin’s style. He said, “We had to fit it into a manageable space, and the focus for us and for the reporters was how she hires.” The story demonstrated “a style very personal, sometimes petty, peremptory, and a style that demands a high degree of loyalty,” he said. “That tells you something about somebody who might be president.” But it doesn’t tell you the consequences of that style, which readers like Blum needed to be convinced. Interestingly, some of the information that was cut might have done that.

This isn’t exactly the first time this has happened. Hoyt has taken his own paper to task for the unsupported McCain-lobbyist tale and its treatment of the Reverend Wright story. All of these stories – surprise, surprise — favor Barack Obama and harm John McCain. So is it time to give up the pretense that the Grey Lady is fairly covering the race?

When we get to the point that the Times’ appointed guardian of journalistic ethics and competence can’t defend his own paper, perhaps the Grey Lady should consider changing that “All The News That’s Fit to Print” slogan.