Five Questions for Bill Keller

Now that the "McCain bombshell" has dropped

As everyone following politics knows by now, The New York Times published a 3,030-word article last night: “For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk.” The piece raised questions about the ethical practices of the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, suggesting a relationship with a female lobbyist during his 2000 presidential run that might have flown in the face of his rhetoric about special interests in Washington and that might—might—have been sexual.

Ironically—but entirely expectedly, given the increasingly heated discourse of the campaign trail—the Times story’s questioning of McCain’s ethics has brought out critics who question the paper’s own standards. This is a tough one. We at CJR have an implicit bias toward information, and generally applaud any efforts to share new information with the public. But “For McCain,” by necessity, takes on two very tricky areas—the nature of a relationship and the nature of a quid pro quo—and, at points, walks the line between information and inference.

Still, the furor surrounding the story—and its back story—affords the Times a unique opportunity to practice the transparency that the public craves in its news organizations. It could, and really should, post an editors’ note on that answers as many of the questions about timing, sourcing, and wording as possible. With that in mind, some questions we’d like to ask the Times’s executive editor, Bill Keller:

1. In the statement you issued this morning defending the “For McCain” story’s publication, you say,

Our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready. ‘Ready’ means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats. This story was no exception. It was a long time in the works. It reached my desk late Tuesday afternoon. After a final edit and a routine check by our lawyers, we published it.

But in today’s New Republic piece detailing the McCain story’s back story, Gabe Sherman claims that you were initially against the story’s being published—specifically because it wasn’t ready—and that, “late in the day on February 19, [NYT Washington editor Dean] Baquet sent a final draft of the Times piece” to you and managing editor Jill Abramson in New York. “After a series of discussions,” Sherman writes, “the three editors decided to publish the investigation.” What changed—and what went on in Tuesday’s discussions?

2. Does the Times have information that corroborates its suggestion of an affair, but that it didn’t publish in “For McCain”?

3. TPM’s Josh Marshall, commenting on “For McCain” last night, wrote, “It seems to me that we have a story from the Times that reads like it’s had most of the meat lawyered out of it.” Has it? Did legal concerns change any of the final story’s content?

4. In “Re-examining Our Credibility,” a memo issued to Times newsroom staffers on Nov. 10, 2004, then-assistant managing editor Allan Siegal wrote,

In the last year and a half, The Times has deepened and widened its efforts to deserve readers’ trust….We have required that every unidentified source quoted in the paper be known by name to at least one editor; we have tried to describe our sources and their motives more candidly and usefully. We’d like to believe we have reduced our dependence on anonymous sources; certainly we have begun trying and intend to push ahead.

Yet the piece’s only named source for the suggestion of a possible affair is John Weaver, McCain’s former strategist; the other suggestions of an affair in “For McCain” generally rely on unnamed sources, and their desire for anonymity isn’t explained beyond calling them “disillusioned.” Given that, is “For McCain” an exception to the Times’s standards of reportorial transparency? If so, why?

5. “For McCain” rehashes an incident from 1999 in which the senator received rebuke from the FCC after he wrote its chair urging it to give quick consideration to a TV license request from Paxson Communications, whose CEO—a friend of McCain’s—had provided McCain with several thousand dollars’ worth of cash and services. Though the Paxson affair made headlines at the time, the only new pieces of information “For McCain” provides, a decade later, are details of McCain’s relationship with Iseman, who lobbied for Paxson. Would “For McCain” have been a page-one story without its suggestions of sexual impropriety?


Update, 2/22/08:

We’ve received, off the Web site, some critical commentary that takes me to task for some of the
questions above—specifically, for posing questions that Bill Keller may not, for legal or ethical reasons, be able to answer. That criticism deserves a response:

To clarify—and I wish I had made this more clear in the initial piece—the questions above were not meant as demands for information from Keller, but rather as frames for making sense of the McCain article and the commentary about it. I posed the questions that occurred to me, and that might occur to any sensible reader, while reading the piece, understanding that Keller, were he to respond, might not have been able to answer all of them. I respect a fellow journalist’s right not to answer such questions as much as he or she, I’d hope, would respect my right to ask them.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.