In today’s New York Times, Public Editor Clark Hoyt reveals the result of his investigation into the charge that the paper killed a story during the 2008 Presidential campaign in order to help Barack Obama. Hoyt concludes that the claim is “nonsense.”
ON March 17, a Republican lawyer, quoting a confidential source for a Times reporter, testified to Congress that the newspaper killed a story last fall because it would have been “a game-changer” in the presidential election.
The charge, amplified by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News in April and reverberating around the conservative blogosphere, is about the most damning allegation that can be made against a news organization. If true, it would mean that Times editors, whose job is to report the facts without fear or favor, were so lacking in integrity that they withheld an important story in order to influence the election.
But the facts as related by Hoyt don’t rebut the charge; they support it.
Times reporter Stephanie Strom was looking into ACORN, and she had a source, a former ACORN employee named Anita Moncrief. Moncrief told Strom that she had evidence of “constant contact” between ACORN’s Project Vote and both the Obama and Clinton campaigns:
On Sept. 7, Moncrief wrote to Strom that she had donor lists from the campaigns of Obama and Hillary Clinton and that there had been “constant contact” between the campaigns and Project Vote, an Acorn affiliate whose tax-exempt status forbids it to engage in partisan politics. Moncrief said she had withheld that information earlier but was disclosing it now that the conservative columnist Michelle Malkin was “all over it.”
“I am sorry,” she wrote, “but I believe in Obama and did not want to help the Republicans.”
A key part of Moncrief’s story was that the Obama campaign had furnished ACORN with lists of maxed-out donors so that ACORN could mine them for contributions. In fact, Moncrief provided the Times reporter, Strom, with such a list that ACORN allegedly obtained from the Obama campaign. Hoyt does not dispute that this story, if true, was evidence of violation of the campaign finance laws.
So why did the Times pull the plug on Strom’s ongoing investigation? The story became public because a Republican lawyer named Heather Heidelbaugh testified, apparently based on information she got from Anita Moncrief, that the Times had been working on an Obama-ACORN story but that “Ms. Strom reported to Ms. Moncrief that her editors at The New York Times wanted her to kill the story because, and I quote, ‘it was a game-changer.'” Hoyt undertakes to show that this charge was false.
He admits, though, that Strom’s editor, Suzanne Daley, “called a halt to Strom’s pursuit of the Obama angle.” So the Times did kill the investigation and any further reporting. The only question is why. Hoyt uncritically accepts Daley’s explanation:
“We had worked on that story for a while and had come up empty-handed,” Daley said. “You have to cut bait after a while.” She said she never thought of the story as a game-changer and never used that term with Strom.
But wait! Hoyt also relates that shortly before Daley pulled the plug, “Moncrief finally agreed to go on the record” and Strom had scheduled a meeting with her. It was when she called Moncrief to cancel the meeting that Strom allegedly told her that her bosses had killed the investigation to protect Obama. Obviously, if Strom was about to hit pay-dirt with an on-the-record witness, Daley’s assertion that she killed the story because Strom “had come up empty-handed” is false.
Hoyt doesn’t appear to notice the contradiction. He does, however, labor manfully to defend the Times. He goes to great lengths to refute the claim that Strom told Moncrief the Times killed the story because it was a “game-changer,” as though that particular phrase had some talismanic significance. Yet, if you read Hoyt’s column to the end, you find that in an email to Hoyt Moncrief attributed exactly that statement to Strom:
She said Strom told her “it was their policy not to print a game-changer for either side that close to the election.”
Hoyt also argues that the story about Obama and ACORN would not have been a “game-changer” in that it would not have swung the election to John McCain. I agree. But since when is that the standard? Is Hoyt telling us that the Times’ policy is only to print stories that have the potential to change the result of a Presidential election? Of course, if the story did have the potential to change the outcome of the election, that, too, would have been offered as a reason not to print it.
Hoyt also volunteers that Moncrief had a “credibility problem” because she had been fired by ACORN for putting private expenses on an ACORN credit card. So she is that classic newspaper source, a disgruntled former employee. Is Hoyt telling us that the Times doesn’t run stories on the basis of leads from disgruntled former employees? Hah! If the paper followed that policy, it would lose out on its best exposes. And it bears repeating that Moncrief was attesting to first-hand information, not just passing along a rumor she had heard at ACORN. By her account, “it was her job to identify” maxed-out Obama donors who might contribute to ACORN’s Project Vote.
Hoyt interviewed Strom, of course, but–rather remarkably–he does not reveal what Strom told him about her conversation with Daley in which Daley killed Strom’s ongoing investigation. That’s a rather significant omission, isn’t it? Instead, Hoyt merely quotes Strom’s observation that she did write a story on ACORN that appeared on October 22:
[B]efore they were to meet, Strom said, another source gave her an internal report detailing concerns about impermissible political activity by Acorn and its tax-exempt affiliates. The resulting article was published on Oct. 22.
That story is here. It addresses another topic entirely, the lack of any real distinction between ACORN and Project Vote. It does, however, address the Obama controversy, very briefly:
Republicans have tried to make an issue of Senator Barack Obama’s ties to the group, which he represented in a lawsuit in 1995. The Obama campaign has denied any connection with Acorn’s voter registration drives.
There you have it. That’s the last word the Times’ readers got on Obama’s very likely illegal relationship with ACORN.
If the Times didn’t kill the story for the reason illogically asserted by Daley–it hadn’t panned out–then why did they kill it? Perhaps Stephanie Strom’s email reply to Anita Moncrief, quoted by Hoyt, suggests an answer:
Am also onto the Obama connection, sadly. Would love the donor lists. As for helping the Repubs, they’re already onto this like white on rice. SIGH!
For the New York Times, Republicans are simply the enemy. By October 2008, it was time to circle the wagons.