If the folks at the New York Times are trying to be People magazine with their gossip item on John McCain, they’re doing a lousy job. If they’re trying to be a serious newspaper, they’re doing even worse. Not only is the article a nothingburger deluxe with fries, but is there any chance they would recycle a similar heap of moldy, crumbling rumors about a candidate that they like? (Endorsing John McCain in the primary is not the same thing as hoping he becomes president.) To answer this question, I looked up a few cases where Clark Hoyt, the Times’s “public editor,” has mentioned Hillary Clinton in recent columns. (In his direct comment on the McCain article in Sunday’s paper, Hoyt was gently critical of the paper’s editors.)
On November 4 Hoyt discussed readers’ comments on The Caucus, the Times’s “politics blog,” as follows: “Given the current political atmosphere, The Caucus is a magnet for splenetic comments, many of which don’t make it onto the Web site. A posting by a Times correspondent about Barack Obama is sure to bring out racist submissions. Mention of Mitt Romney inspires ‘just horrific misstatements about Mormonism and his own life,’ . . . Wild claims that Hillary Clinton is a murderer don’t make it either.” The last sentence is presumably a reference to Vince Foster’s suicide, which conspiracy theorists link to the Clintons by scraping up a few scattered bits of evidence and holding them together with plenty of insinuendo. The Times would never do anything like that, would they? (Elsewhere in the piece we find this quote from Kate Phillips, editor of The Caucus: “‘Reader engagement enriches our world,’ she said. ‘I am totally enthralled, astounded by the minds of our readers.’” That’s a refreshing change from the attitude of Bill Keller, who thinks Times readers are a bunch of dimwits.)
On December 2 Hoyt wrote about the difficulty of verifying assertions made by candidates while campaigning: “Fact-checking a blizzard of statements by eight Democrats and eight Republicans is admittedly hard work, especially for reporters traveling with candidates and writing on tight deadlines. Which facts are worth the trouble? Is it important, for example, whether Hillary Clinton left a tip at a restaurant in Iowa? Numbers are usually easy, but what about those statements that maybe just shade the truth a little by cherry-picking facts, or that require deeper research to determine what is correct?” More to the point, what if reporters shade the truth a whole lot, spend four months doing deeper research to determine what is correct, and still can’t nail anything down besides maybes and conjectures? Are those facts worth the trouble–especially if there aren’t any facts?
And on January 13 Hoyt was less than lukewarm about the paper’s decision to make William Kristol a regular columnist: “Kristol’s first column . . . wrote off Hillary Clinton with finality the day before she won the New Hampshire primary. He also misattributed a quotation that had to be corrected. . . . [Kristol’s hiring] is a decision I would not have made.” Fair enough, though these seem fairly minor infractions. But what does that say about reporters who spend 3,000 words retailing ancient water-cooler talk (“had been turning up with him,” “the appearance of a close bond”) as if it had some shred of importance?