This Sunday, The New York Times turned in a 4,500 word investigation into John McCain’s relationship with gambling and the gambling industry. As it turns out, many of his close advisors and friends have worked as lobbyists and consultants to the industry, often for clients with business before McCain’s Indian Affairs Committee, the prime Senate regulator of tribal gaming.
The story lacks a dramatic smoking gun; the newsiest bit seems to be that people close to McCain say he viewed unflattering the stories about Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed that emerged from the Abramoff hearings as partial payback for past political battles. But the vast catalog of connections and attendant campaign cash certainly dull McCain’s anti-lobbyist patina.
What makes the article particularly interesting from a journalism standpoint, however, is a quote from McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds in response to a query on the article’s lede, a colorful story of McCain rolling craps at Foxwoods alongside the casino’s lobbyist until 2:30 in the morning. Bounds’s quote ran high in the article:
Mr. McCain’s spokesman, Tucker Bounds, would not discuss the senator’s night of gambling at Foxwoods, saying: “Your paper has repeatedly attempted to insinuate impropriety on the part of Senator McCain where none exists — and it reveals that your publication is desperately willing to gamble away what little credibility it still has.”
It’s not everyday that you see a paper run a quote that specifically impugns that paper’s reporting.
McCain—or his designee—is certainly entitled to give his side of the late night, high-rolling session. But the portion of Bounds’s quote that is actually responsive to that incident boils down to one word, a vague but blanket denial of “impropriety.” The rest is a broadside aimed at the Gray Lady.
Unresponsive responses are a hallmark of political journalism, and journalists must weigh whether or not a quote crosses a threshold of relevance and merits printing. So I asked Matthew Purdy, the paper’s investigations editor, if he thought this quote did.
“It did,” responded Purdy, who was polite but tight-lipped through our brief conversation.
I suggested to Purdy that the paper could have just as easily run a sentence like this, which, on the matter in question, would have been no different:
Mr. McCain’s spokesman, Tucker Bounds, would not discuss the senator’s night of gambling at Foxwoods, except to insist that the encounter reflected no “impropriety.”
So why run the full quote?
“We asked him about that incident in the lede, and that was his response,” Purdy said. “They answered it and they were entitled to their response.”
But given Bounds’s attack, this is more than a matter of non-responsiveness. Purdy made it clear he was not interested in addressing questions (one non-response begets another?) about how the paper’s decision to run the quote fit into the context of the McCain campaign’s recent strident attacks on the paper’s reputation and reporting.
“I’m sure there will be plenty of other people willing to opine on that,” Purdy said. “That’s all I want to say on that.”
One person who has opined on that in the past is the Times’s political editor, Richard Stevenson. As he told The Politico’s Michael Calderone, “I understand that for them we’re a prop We’re a foil that they can use for their purposes.”
Given that context, what can we make of paper’s decision to run the quote as they did? Bounds can say whatever he likes, and as long as the paper quotes him accurately, the paper is free to run it. But the quote’s inclusion reads like the Times is happy to give space to Bounds in a way that makes him and McCain’s campaign look like bullies to the paper’s readers, and victims to his campaign’s partisans. Yes, again, it’s Bounds decision to respond however he likes—if he wants to stoke the base’s anti-Times fire, fine.
But by quoting his response in full, it looks like the Times is happy to help him pour the gas. There’s something admirable in retrenching under pressure. But there’s something disappointing in giving your sparring partner exactly what they want.