Thursday, February 21, 2008

New York Times Needs Named Sources for McCain Lobbyist Story

I'm supporting Barack Obama for President, and wouldn't vote for John McCain if he was squeakiest clean candidate in history. But I'm also a Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City, with a keen interest in wanting journalists to report with the highest ethical and professional standards to Americans, and I want those standards to apply to reporting about all candidates - whether I agree with their politics or not.

With that goal as my guide, I have to say that The New York Times needs named, on-the-record sources for its front-page story about John McCain possibly having a romantic entanglement with a lobbyist that caused his aides in 2000 to take action.

Unnamed sources have their role in journalism. But in a story of this magnitude, concerning someone who has all but received the Republican nomination for President, and whom the Times endorsed, the public interest requires real names of real sources. In their absence, the public is forced to rely on The New York Times' judgment, and, in a matter of this importance, the judgment of any news operation can never be good enough.

Why do Americans need to know the names of the Times' sources? Because the American people need to decide, based upon all possible evidence, whether the sources were telling the truth to The New York Times. Even if the sources weren't lying, we might learn, based on their position in the campaign, that they were not really in a position to know what was going on. Media other than the New York Times need to be able to look into what happened in 2000, and report their findings.

There is also a point to be made about the allegations themselves being unclear - or, if they are clear, not really indicative of any ethical breach. Did McCain actually have an affair with the lobbyist, or were the aides acting to make sure this didn't happen?

In a Presidential election, reporting should, if anything, be held to higher standards than usual. Although this story is certainly of great interest, it appears that The New York Times, if anything, adhered to lower standards than we might want it to bring to bear regarding sources and details.
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