The Times reporter, in short, saw something that did arguably raise questions. He looked into it. He found nothing. Then rather than printing nothing — since, after all, that’s what he found — he instead went to press with a story that “raises questions” — a formulation that simply amounts to a presumption of guilt.
Yep. This is common practice for at least two reasons (and maybe others I haven’t thought of):
Reporters just hate the idea of spending a bunch of time on a story and then not having anything to show for it. This is actually an even bigger problem in the field of “trend analysis,” where the actual evidence often turns out to suggest that nothing much is going on but the juicy anecdotal stories are nonetheless too good to pass up.
Reporters often toss out half-formed stories like the Obama one (or the Edwards house story) in hopes that beating the bushes will dislodge some additional information. What better way of letting people know that they should call you with tips than by printing an accusatory story on the front page?
The downside of all this, of course, is that newspapers routinely print stuff that’s unfair and/or misleading. But I guess they figure that’s a small price to pay.