The Times Comes Clean

Rumors are rumors, but not all are deflated

After we’ve repeatedly hammered the press for reporting as news the very narratives that they themselves create while covering the campaign, could it be that someone was actually listening? New York Times reporter Katharine Q. Seelye takes one for the team this morning when, in a piece about public apologies that Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee made to two of their opponents over some unkind comments their campaigns made, Seelye writes:

At the same time, as the news media report on the apologies, they, too, become complicit in regurgitating the original comments. Reporters have the choice of either helping keep the accusations in circulation or keeping readers or viewers in the dark.

Finally, a political reporter comes out and says it. She’s right, reporters do face a choice. And as we saw with the Perry Bacon Jr. debacle last week, it’s important for a reporter to either debunk a rumor or offer evidence that it’s true (note to WaPo editors: “rumors” are neither true nor false, until proven so)—otherwise they’re just writing nasty press releases for those floating the rumors.

In this particular case, the rumors Seelye refers to are a Clinton adviser’s remark that Republicans would go after Barack Obama for his youthful drug use, and Huckabee’s suggestion that Mormons may believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers (seriously)—an obvious shot at Mitt Romney. Obama has acknowledged experimenting with drugs as a younger man, so Seelye’s job was pretty easy on this one. As far as the Huckabee story goes, in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, he asked “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” I don’t know, do they? Seelye neither confirms nor debunks this, and from what I can tell, it’s a very complicated question—but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have called up an expert or two to find out. For many Republican primary voters, this is a pretty damaging charge to be left hanging out there in the public square—and leaving it hanging is exactly what a reporter shouldn’t do. If nudging closer to an answer isn’t possible in the first story, how about a follow-up?

Kim Farah, a spokeswoman for the LDS church told the AP that Mormons “believe that all beings were created by God and are his spirit children. Christ, on the other hand, was the only begotten in the flesh and we worship him as the son of God and the savior of mankind. Satan is the exact opposite of who Christ is and what he stands for.” Parse that one for yourselves—St. Martin’s elementary school never prepared me to be an expert on theological matters, though to their credit I can rattle off the stations of the cross rather nicely. In other words, after noting Huckabee’s question Seelye somehow never gets around to trying to break it down. Still, it’s a step. Kudos to Katharine Q. Seelye for acknowledging the obvious role reporters have in shaping the narrative in political campaigns, even if she didn’t completely follow through doing something about it.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.