Wednesday, February 27, 2008

New York Times (sort of) admits inept journalism

The New York Times came about as close to a “mea culpa” as it can when its ombudsman conceded that the newspaper journalistically botched its attempted hatchet job on John McCain.

The ombudsman -- an editor whose job it is to referee complaints about the newspaper’s journalistic practices -- said that the Times failed to do adequate homework when it ran a story implying that the Arizona senator and presumptive Republican presidential nominee may have had an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist. The story conceded there’s no evidence that the two had any type of affair nor was it able to show any inappropriate exercise of senatorial discretion.

The main thrust of the story is a contention that some McCain staffers told the lobbyist to chill out after they caught wind that she was claiming to have good access to McCain. If that’s true, the senator’s aides did exactly as they should to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Lobbyists live or die by their ability to have access to politicians -- that’s why former legislator Bill Broydrick is one of Madison’s busiest lobbyists. He’s been there and done that unlike lobbyists who can only guess what it’s like to be inside the legislature.

Every lobbyist, tho, wants prospective clients to believe that they have special access because that’s what the client wants. For McCain, who chided Barack Obama when the freshman senator backed out of a promise to back proposed lobbying legislation, the speculation is inconsistent with his voting record. It’s a miracle that he didn’t explode when the flawed Times story broke.

The Times ombudsman nailed it when he wrote that the newspaper should have done more homework before trying to make a story out of rumors and speculation. It’s not a full apology but a major journalistic mea culpa nonetheless.

As for McCain, the story seems to have helped rather than hurt him. In the wake of the story his contributions are up and some right-wing Republicans who haven’t been warm to his campaign all of the sudden are taking his side against the “liberal” newspaper.
My take is that I agree with the ombudsman: You don’t take on a senator (or anyone else for that matter) if you haven’t done your homework. The newspaper really does owe McCain a full apology.

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