The New York Times is an everyday reminder of the importance of journalism. Usually a gleaming example of ethics and quality reporting, many believe it the best newspaper in the country. However, the latest controversy to hit their newsroom has changed several minds.
Last week, The Times published an article titled “For McCain, Self-Confidence On Ethics Poses Its Own Risk.” The article inquired as to the ethical practices of the Republican presidential candidate but rather ironically concluded with readers questioning the ethics of The Times itself.
Written by four Times reporters, “For McCain” discussed Senator John McCain’s previous involvement in some questionable activities, most damaging of which was a supposed relationship with a female lobbyist thirty years his junior who worked closely with the candidate.
McCain says The Times got it wrong: there was no “romantic” connection between the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, and himself, and their relationship was purely political. In the article, however, his advisers concluded otherwise, viewing Iseman as a threat and proceeding to remove her from contact with the senator.
Understandably, a story like this could break McCain’s campaign for president, suggesting that more often than not, his agenda navigated toward self-service rather than public. If the information is invalid, as McCain claims it is, the story could break The New York Times as well.
The Times received an astonishing amount of backlash for the front-page article. Overnight, 2,000 readers left comments online and many more wrote in or called the paper to complain. Some even demanded that The Times end their subscriptions, dissatisfied with their performance as an unbiased publication.
As a journalism student, I am disappointed in The Times for their momentary lapse in ethical decision-making. The purpose of a journalistic organization is to provide the public with timely, accurate and unbiased information. “For McCain” failed on that front.
The Times provided readers with quality information about McCain’s past and involvement in special interest politics. However, it failed to conclusively nail down many of the questions it raised. Relying solely on one revealed source, the rest unnamed, The Times centered the article on the supposed romantic affair.
Ultimately, the story could have been great had the writers focused more heavily on the verified scandals, like the Keating Five, which they revealed with less excitement later in the article. It’s true, political corruption doesn’t have all the bells and whistles promised with a sex scandal, but it seems that the only purpose of the other questionable acts mentioned in “For McCain” were to safeguard The Times’ necessity to publish the article. Had the story solely discussed the romantic allegations, I doubt the editors of The Times would have published it.
The Times defended itself, claiming their reporters attempted to gather named sources that would go on the record but were unable to convince the majority. While I understand this was probably the case and that The Times didn’t break any rules, they were unable to provide the sound evidence to corroborate the unnamed sources’ claims, something that would seem essential when presenting such accusatory information. The publication owed it to the readers to clarify and add more conclusive evidence and sourcing.
Had we not been in the heat of the presidential primaries, this type of article may have never received the criticism it did. For what it’s worth, The Times delivered a lesson in ethics, both politically and journalistically, and readers were taught to exercise their rights as the public to talk back, an essential element in the journalistic process.
While the story wasn’t one of The Times’ most shining moments, I still have faith in their publication. Many journalistic organizations and reviews, such as the Columbia Journalism Review, rank it among the top newspapers in the country for coverage and quality. I will continue to read and support it and hope that the article serves as a reminder of the importance of journalism and the commitment to the readership.
Taylor Moore is a journalism senior and a Mustang Daily current events columnist.