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December 13, 2004

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Yet Another New York Times Edition)

Danny Okrent doesn't seem to be able to tell it straight. He writes:

The New York Times > Week in Review > The Public Editor: Now It's Time for The Times to Talk About The Times: Check out posting No. 37 on my Web journal for reporter Richard W. Stevenson's account of how and why The Times seemed to botch the story on Treasury Secretary John Snow's nonresignation last week...

And, indeed, Richard Stevenson writes:

The New York Times: Daniel Okrent (Forum/Message Board): On Monday, Dec. 6, The Times ran an article entitled “Treasury Secretary Is Likely to Leave Soon.” The article’s lead read, “President Bush has decided to replace John W. Snow as treasury secretary and has been looking closely at a number of possible replacements, including the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., Republicans with ties to the White House say.”

Two days later, the White House announced Snow was staying, and the Monday story – which had no named sources supporting the headline or lead – didn’t look so good. Reporter Richard Stevenson explained to me his view of what happened:

My story in Monday's paper was built around information I got from people I trust. I believed it to be completely accurate then. The reporting done by my colleagues at The Times and competitors at papers like The Washington Post since then strongly suggests that it was largely or wholly correct at the time it was written.

The White House, according to these accounts, was looking at replacements for Mr. Snow, and may even have offered the job to one of them. Only after failing to find an attractive replacement -- and after creating both economic and political uncertainty by leaving the situation unresolved for so long, never mind suffering the complication of stories about its thinking in two major newspapers -- did the White House decide to keep Mr. Snow on, according to these reports. And it is worth noting that until it announced that Mr. Snow was staying, the White House never refuted my story or earlier stories in The Post (which first reported that Mr. Snow would be leaving).

I'm not so stubborn as to rule out the possibility that I was working with exaggerated, flawed or incomplete information, or that this whole episode was the result of the Washington echo chamber run amok. In my view, it is far more likely that I was working with good information in a fluid situation that turned in an unexpected direction.

What would Okrent have written--what would Stevenson have written--if they were telling it straight?

Stevenson's Monday story's lead would have read something like this:

A faction within the White House that routinely uses leaks to me--leaks which may or may not be accurate, because I cannot check or assess them--to try to shape public perceptions and win internal battles has decided to leak to me that President Bush has decided to replace John W. Snow as treasury secretary. This leak may or may not be accurate: perhaps Bush has decided to replace Snow, and perhaps he has not but this faction that I will not name thinks that stories like this one that I am writing will push Bush to make such a decision. I do know that staffers within the Bush White House have been assessing and interviewing a number of candidates, but it is not clear whether any of the candidates whom Bush might find preferable to Snow would take the job. One potential candidate is the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., Republicans with ties to the White House say.

This alternative lead has the virtue of being true. It has the vice of not being sufficiently subservient to the wishes of Stevenson's masters, the leakers, and so runs the risk that Stevenson would have to work harder in the future to get stories.

For Okrent to write that the New York Times only "seemed to botch the story" is deceptive: the New York Times did botch the story, first by claiming that what Stevenson's leak-masters wanted to happen and hoped would happen was in fact going to happen, and second by failing to mention that Stevenson and his article were in fact part of the story--part of his leak-masters' campaign to drive Snow out.

Posted by DeLong at December 13, 2004 12:00 PM

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A well-edited and truthful story by Mr. Stevenson would have read, "According to gossip from pals at the White House, John Snow will be forced out. Being a hack journalist working for an organization that magisterially pretends to be a newspaper, I am publishing that gossip as news."

That version would spare both trees and carpets.

Posted by: Charles at December 13, 2004 12:45 PM

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