The NYT and the McCain Story

While the NYT has certainly had and has many, many Pravda moments, it’s not wont to surrender to the scurrilousness of yellow journalism, which is why the story of a possible affair between Senator McCain and Vikki Iseman seems to have incensed readers and the media alike (regardless of the two anonymous, former aides that seem to corroborate the story). Certainly, the innuendo of an affair in a story about influence peddling was clearly a lightning rod. The NYT editorial board on the reaction to the story:

Did The Times Violate Its Standards on Anonymity?

Q. Why did The New York Times not follow its own most-recently publicized rule on sourcing in its stories? As I understand the policy is that The New York Times will only use unidentified sources as a last resource and if it needs to do so it will at least give a reason why these sources have to remain anonymous. This article in The New York Times did neither. Why?

— Guillermo Martinez, Miami

Q. There are numerous unnamed sources and a large number of “staff” or “campaign” officials who are quoted or used as references in this story. Has The New York Times exceeded good judgment by having absolutely no named individuals corroborating this story? What procedures did the editors use to ensure that these stories were not the work of a small number of individuals who conspired to embarrass Mr. McCain or The New York Times?

— Frank Baitman, Baltimore

A. We have received lots of questions on the use of anonymous sources in the story and these two are representative of many of them.

It is always preferable to have named sources in stories. In 2003, The Times appointed a standards editor to the masthead, and tightened its standards for anonymous sourcing in 2004. In the case of our McCain story, Times standards were followed and senior editors knew the identities of the sources for the story, who provided detailed and consistent accounts about their concerns about the senator’s relationship with a Washington lobbyist. On many important stories, especially on controversies involving Washington politics and policy battles, sources request anonymity for different reasons. Some fear retribution, including loss of their positions. Some are motivated by a desire to share sensitive information that they deem in the public interest but fear disclosing their identities for a variety of reasons. Others have less selfless reasons.