Adam Nagourney has been chief national political reporter at the New York Times for the past two years. He joined the Times in 1996 as a political reporter covering Bob Dole and later became the Times political reporter covering metropolitan New York. Prior to joining the Times, he covered the White House and the 1992 presidential campaign for USA Today, and the Dukakis campaign for the New York Daily News. Nagourney discussed the campaign with us as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters, editors and commentators covering the election.
Liz Cox Barrett: On October 19 you and Janet Elder wrote a page-one piece featuring a New York Times/CBS poll, headlined: “Poll Shows Tie …” Why does the Times poll deserve any more play than any other poll? Isn’t your piece more like a New York Times press release, more self-promotion than it is helpful for readers?
Adam Nagourney: I don’t buy that argument at all. I don’t know whether I saw it on Campaign Desk or where. The reason why the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal invest a lot of money and personnel in their own poll is to have a poll that they trust. And we have a whole unit of people, polling people, that help us develop our questions and do samples and figure out how to write and report the poll. … If the Times wants to get publicity for itself, it can buy an ad in the subway, but this is not what this is about at all. …
I think if you believe in polls and you’re going to report on polls, I think a serious newspaper, if it can afford to, should do its own polling. The level of vetting and question formulation and historical trends and hopefully the reputation of the poll mean that we’re writing about a poll that’s known as reliable and serious.
LCB: Shouldn’t such a story also mention or consider other polls?
AN: We do do that. Especially this year more than ever. I am not inclined to write about other people’s polls generally except in passing, like, for example this year when polling has been so wacky. I think pretty much in all of our stories we’ve made a point of putting it in the context of what other people are finding, and on a couple of occasions we have written sidebars describing various polls, trying to explain why that is. It’s not self-promotion. I’ve worked for papers that are about self-promotion. I worked for the Daily News, I love the Daily News and papers do do self-promotion — I don’t think the Times does that.
LCB: Campaign Desk has pointed to assorted shortcomings of the political press — including you and some of your colleagues — this election season, from unsupported leads to anonymous sources to something that you decried in recent interview with Howard Kurtz: “false equivalence.” Why do these same shortcomings continue to plague campaign journalists?
AN: I think they’ve all improved markedly over the years. Certainly at the New York Times there’s been a drop in the use of anonymous sources. I’ve tried to cut down on my use. When I used to work at USA Today there was a strict rule against using any quotes from anonymous sources — and I thought that was great policy — so it’s always made me averse to it.
At the New York Times when you’re covering a campaign and when you inevitably have to use an anonymous source quote, a) I will not use an anonymous quote that is critical of someone, and b) I try to explain why the person doesn’t want to be identified. … [At this point in the election] I can pretty much tell you, if any Republican is upset with the way Bush is running his campaign or any Democrat is upset with the way Kerry is running his campaign, they’re not going to say that to you on the record or for attribution. So in that situation … that would be a case where I might have to use anonymous quotes.
…. We’re trying — and I think everyone is trying — I’ve seen the Washington Post and here at the Times, when they quote people anonymously, explain why that is.
LCB: And some of the explanations are sort of … hilarious.
AN: They’re great. Elisabeth Bumiller, her explanations are incredible. But they’re true. I saw one that was, “because I didn’t want to get woken up at 8:00 in the morning by an angry phone call from Karl Rove.” I mean, they’re true. So I do think there’s been improvement there in the political press.