The Times Speaks

THE TIMES SPEAKS….Really, this is unbelievable. Here is New York Times executive editor Bill Keller in an online Q&A declaring himself surprised by both the volume and the lopsidedness of the reaction to Wednesday’s John McCain non-affair story. Then his surprise continues:

And, frankly, I was a little surprised by how few readers saw what was, to us, the larger point of the story. Perhaps here, at the outset of this conversation, is a good point to state as clearly as possible our purpose in publishing.

[Blah blah blah]

The point of this “Long Run” installment was that, according to people who know him well, this man who prizes his honor above all things and who appreciates the importance of appearances also has a history of being sometimes careless about the appearance of impropriety, about his reputation. The story cites several examples, and quotes friends and admirers talking of this apparent contradiction in his character. That is why some members of his staff were so alarmed by the appearance of his relationship with Ms. Iseman. And that, it seemed (and still seems) to us, was something our readers would want to know about a man who aspires to be president.

The “larger point.” Right. This is just embarrassing. Everybody with a pulse knows that no one is criticizing the Times for reporting that McCain was doing the bidding of a lobbyist and campaign contributor. Rather, this story has gotten saturation coverage because the Times has been careful to refer to Vicki Iseman as a “female lobbyist” on practically every occasion it can — including the introduction to the very Q&A Keller is taking part in. Times reader aren’t children. We all know what this means, and we all know perfectly well that the Times piece loudly insinuated some kind of inappropriate romantic involvement between McCain and Iseman. So far, though, the Q&A has addressed only the peripheral subjects of what “Long Run” pieces are like, what the Times’ policy on anonymous sources is, and the Chinese wall between the newsroom and the editorial page staff. Riveting stuff.

And the elephant in the room? Missing in action so far. Do you think they’ll ever get to it?

UPDATE: Several hours into the Q&A, Jill Abramson finally gets around to the elephant:

We believed it was vital for the story to accurately reflect the range of concerns shared by our sources….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. The editors and the reporting team believed it was important for readers to know what could have concerned top advisers so much that they confronted their boss. We believe the story did this fairly and accurately, giving readers as much information as we could.

That’s it? Abramson acts as though the rules for dropping a tactical nuke are the same as they are for authorizing a mortar attack. But she knows perfectly well how incendiary this stuff is. Surely it requires a little more justification than “this was a vague suspicion that a few guys had at the time”?

I dunno. Abramson is right when she says, “Documents are always useful in reporting, but they are not required.” Still, reporters don’t just uncritically pass along everything every source tells them, and in this case her sources didn’t provide any evidence at all that McCain was romantically involved with Iseman. It was just a concern they apparently had — maybe well founded, maybe not. Is that really enough?

But I’m also intrigued by Abramson’s claim that the Times piece gave readers “as much information as we could.” That’s not the same thing as “all the information we had.” Does this signify something, or am I reading too much meaning into her choice of words?