The Times Judges Itself, Finds Itself Okay

In today’s column, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt assesses two hit pieces that ran on the front page of the Times last weekend. The first hit piece was an attack on John McCain; it alleged that McCain had “regularly stretch[ed] the truth” in describing Barack Obama’s positions on the issues. Hoyt gives this article a clean bill of health, finding that it was based on “a solid foundation of fact.” Why? Because the paper’s reporters had “seen a pattern of ‘demonstrable falsehoods, exaggerations, misconstruals or omissions’ on the part of McCain.”

Strong words. What’s the evidence? Hoyt mentions two items specifically. The first is a McCain ad that made the “false charge that Obama supported comprehensive sex education for kids in kindergarten.” Only that charge wasn’t false, it was true. Obama did support “comprehensive sex education” for kindergartners. Adding that the sex education should be “age appropriate” doesn’t change the fact.

Hoyt’s second instance is that McCain “repeatedly and incorrectly asserted” that Obama would raise taxes on the middle class. That’s arguably untrue if one takes the tax proposals that Obama has offered for the first time during the campaign at face value, although his increased taxes on oil companies would raise the price of gasoline for everyone and his proposal to increase Social Security taxes would affect families that by any reasonable definition are middle class. But no one seriously believes that under an Obama administration, spending would increase dramatically, taxes would be cut for all but the “rich,” and the “rich” would magically make up the difference. There just aren’t enough rich people to go around. The McCain campaign based its criticism of Obama not on the pie-in-the-sky proposal he fashioned for purposes of the campaign, but on his voting record. And it is an indisputable fact that Obama has repeatedly voted to raise income taxes on families earning as little as $41,000 annually.

So McCain’s ads are either plainly true, or fair argument. But what about Obama? Hasn’t he been guilty of misrepresentations and exaggerations over the course of the campaign? Well, sure, the Times admits. But that’s different:

While the article said that Obama’s “hands have not always been clean in this regard” — he “incorrectly” said that McCain supported a hundred-year war in Iraq, “distorted” his record on school financing and took economic comments “out of context” — the brunt fell on McCain because of his large number of misrepresentations recently.

So: John McCain accurately notes that Obama voted for sex education for kindergartners, and that’s an outrageous lie meriting a front-page article. Barack Obama falsely says–probably 100 or more times–that McCain wants to fight a war for 100 years, and that’s, what? A slip of the tongue? The contrast is a stark illustration of the Times’ partisan perspective.

That was the article that Hoyt says was well-founded. He can’t say the same for the Times’ front-page hit piece on Sarah Palin, which consisted of a pastiche of anecdotes spun by Alaskans who don’t like her:

I think it presented a series of unflattering anecdotes, some confusing and incomplete, but never made the connection between style and results necessary to judge a politician who was overwhelmingly re-elected mayor and has an 80 percent approval rating as governor.

Of course, in the inimitable style of the New York Times, Hoyt’s real complaint is that the article isn’t long enough: if only they had gone on at greater length, they could have gotten the goods on Governor Palin!

So Hoyt concludes that the Times went one for two in its back to back hit pieces on the Republican nominees. What we’re still waiting for, of course, is back to back front-page hit pieces on Barack Obama and Joe Biden. But the Times is no more likely to produce such pieces than the Democratic National Committee, its political soul-mate.

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