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New York Times Death Spiral Watch: Jay Rosen Asks a Question

Outsourced to Jay Rosen and his commentators:

PressThink: Three Vetting Stories Went Awry at the New York Times: Find the Pattern.: Obama's drug use. Hillary's marriage. McCain's lobbyist. The New York Times made weird decisions in all three. What gives?....

  • The New York Times trying to “vet” Obama. (On youthful drug use.)
  • The New York Times trying to “vet” Hillary Clinton. (On the state of her marriage.)
  • The New York Times trying to “vet” John McCain. (On cozy ties with lobbyists.)

Each story went weirdly wrong. Each story left people scratching their heads: what were the editors thinking? Each was part of the “vetting” ritual in which the press imagines itself asking the hard questions of candidates who would be president. Each has a touch of the bizarre to it.

My question to you: what is going on here? Anything in common among the cases?

It’s just a question. I’ll post any good answers I get....

Freudians! “This “vetting” may seem to reveal skeletons in the closet, but what what it really seems to reveal to me is that the NYT editors are Freudians looking for keys to character.”

Weldon Berger: “I don’t think there’s an institutional link between the three stories other than that the people who run the paper live in an alternate reality from most people.”

Benjamin Melançon: “All three ‘tough-on-the-candidates’ pieces, driven by the New York Times’ own choices and research rather than breaking events, have in common a great lack. Each goes out of its way to turn something arguably tangential to being president into a character issue.”...

The McCain piece was a bigger fiasco because they departed from the formula by dropping in the not-ready-for-prime-time sex angle. Given that the sex-with-lobbyist allegation had originally been concieved as a stand-alone piece of "investigative reporting" and got shoehorned into the historical "vetting" piece at the last minute, I don't think the "vetting" genre deserves the blame. --Ralph Phelan at February 28, 2008 2:28 PM....

Bill Keller's incredulous reaction to the nearly universal professional disdain for the McCain story's shoddy sourcing pretty much said it all: No one at the top of the New York Times can conceive that they might be wrong about a story, before or after the fact. That kind of insularity may be understandable, but it is also correctable. And as the NYT is a leader in American journalism, and is so conscious of seeing itself in that role, correcting that attitude would be helpful to the entire trade. --Mike at February 28, 2008 3:41 PM....

I thought money might have something to do with the Obama piece: they must have spent $20K or more on time and travel, sending the writer to Hawaii and California and giving him a couple of months to pull the story together. Not much there there for that kind of money, so they decided to wonder whether Obama was exaggerating his drug experience. Without that angle, the story was so vacant that it wouldn't have been printable. The reporter, oddly, seems to have been a refugee from the society pages with no real history of political or investigative reporting that I could find. The Clinton piece was just another manifestation of the weird fascination the couple hold for the higher echelons of the press: Chris Matthews light. On McCain, the problem may have been that the editors didn't recognize the significance of the lobbying shenanigans and felt, similarly to the Obama piece, that it needed sexing up; it was just coincidence that the sexing up was literal. The angle probably gained value to them because the McCain camp fought it so strongly before publication. I don't think there's an institutional link between the three stories other than that the people who run the paper live in an alternate reality from most people. --weldon berger at February 28, 2008 4:21 PM