Stop The Presses!

The L.A. Times stands by a deal with a source, democracy hangs in the balance

The McCain campaign’s latest attempt to portray the press as liberal puppets of Barack Obama—by painting the Los Angeles Times’s refusal to release a videotape of the senator at a farewell dinner in 2003 for Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian scholar and advocate, as part of a vast left-wing conspiracy—is much ado about nothing.

McCain’s spokesman, Michael Goldfarb, accused the Times of “intentionally suppressing information that could provide a clearer link between Barack Obama and Rashid Khalidi.” Goldfarb went on to mention a potentially vote-altering moment wherein the tape could possiblyhave captured Obama’s reaction to a “hate speech”-filled poem recited at the dinner.

This “intentional suppression” has caused plenty of consternation in the blogosphere. Many writers saw the Times’s refusal as evidence of liberal bias; others were just confused by the paper’s intransigence.

Yesterday, the Times published an article explaining its decision to withhold the video. Here’s editor Russ Stanton:

The Los Angeles Times did not publish the videotape because it was provided by a confidential source who did so on the condition that we not release it. The Times keeps its promises to its sources.

Stanton’s explanation is beyond plausible; in fact, such deals with sources are quite common in journalism. Anyone who has worked as a reporter has been given access to a document, allowed to take notes on that document and write a story based on those notes, but not allowed to publish or otherwise distribute the document. So unless we’re prepared to call Stanton a liar, there shouldn’t be any problem taking him at his word.

As Bill Sammon, deputy managing editor of FOX News’s Washington bureau, put it, had Peter Wallsten, the reporter who wrote the Times story based on the videotape, buckled under the demands of the McCain campaign, sources would have good reason to question his trustworthiness in the future. Sammon also notes:

A deal is a deal, even if it’s a dumb deal. Besides, there may be a perfectly legitimate reason for withholding the tape, such as the possibility that it contains footage that would compromise an unnamed source’s identity.

Furthermore, it’s not clear that the Times even still has the tape, but if it does, and it chose to break its promise, what exactly do the McCain folks expect to find? They talk of wanting to see Obama’s reaction to the poem, but do they really think the camera was just zeroed in on the senator all night long, waiting for him to do something suspicious? A terrorist fist-bump, perhaps? Watching with bated breath for a glimpse of the senator as he reacts to a controversial banquet speech is the essence of deliberate oversimplification.

What we do wish the Times had done is be as transparent as possible about how the story came about. Tell us what they can about the source’s motivations and why the editors agreed to grant anonymity and to the restrictions on the use of the tape. This would go a long way toward reassuring the rational public that there is no conspiracy here. For everyone else, it doesn’t matter what the Times does or says.

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Megan McGinley is an intern at CJR.