Conflict of interest stories make great front-page headlines -- except when the newspaper that revels in breaking them is itself in the middle of an ethical morass. Take The New York Times.
Jennifer 8. Lee, one of the muckraking newspaper's reporters, recently boasted on Twitter that the Paper of Record has now "sold $2 million worth of Obama merchandise (book, commemorative editions, etc.)." The president, she noted chirpily, "is good for the bottom line." This lucrative media-government partnership is on proud display at the Times' online Barack Obama store, where readers can buy mugs, books and framed photos of the newspaper's political boosterism.
A press plate of the Times' Obama inauguration front page goes for $149. A "set of Obama victory coffee mugs" sells for $24.95. And for only $1,129, you can own a signed and framed messianic photo of Obama taken by Times photographer Damon Winter -- and neutrally titled "Shining Moment," with the candidate in artsy silhouette as a sunburst illuminates the scenery.
It's a short leap from there to Times reporter Jeff Zeleny, who infamously asked the president in a prime-time press briefing a few weeks ago what had "enchanted" him the most about being in the White House. You could almost see the sunbursts in Zeleny's pupils as he tossed the drool-covered softball to Dear Leader.
I've often said that it's the journalistic sins of omission that are more damning than the industry's sins of commission. Right on cue, the Times acknowledged this weekend that it had spiked a story on possible illegal coordination between left-wing activist groups ACORN and Project Vote and the Obama campaign just before Election Day. The charges involved Team Obama sharing top campaign donor lists with ACORN's supposedly nonpartisan canvassing arm, Project Vote (the same group Obama worked for as a Chicago community organizer).
New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt tried to spin it as a "tip that didn't pan out." He airily dismissed the charges by ACORN whistleblower Anita MonCrief as "nonsense" and quoted Times national editor Suzanne Daley, who shrugged, "You have to cut bait after a while." It was an all too convenient judgment that just happened to be made as Election Day loomed. (Contrast this with the editorial doggedness of the Times' editors in pursuing and publishing the Star Magazine-quality insinuations that GOP presidential candidate John McCain had carried on an affair with Washington lobbyist Vicki Iseman.)
Hoyt attempted to paint MonCrief as an unreliable source. But Times reporter Stephanie Strom had relied on her for months to break a series of ACORN corruption stories. Moreover, MonCrief's allegations fit the shady money-shuffling pattern among ACORN and its affiliates to a T. Strom had reported on ACORN's own internal review of shady money transfers among its web of affiliates conducted by lawyer Elizabeth Kingsley.
The Kingsley review of the incestuous relationship between ACORN and Project Vote found, in the Times' own words, that it was "impossible to document that Project Vote's money had been used in a strictly nonpartisan manner" and "raised concerns not only about a lack of documentation to demonstrate that no charitable money was used for political activities but also about which organization controlled strategic decisions." ACORN, joked independent investigative journalist Matthew Vadum, "moves money around its network with a boldness and agility that Pablo Escobar would have admired."
MonCrief says she was prepared to hand over documentation on the Obama/Project Vote donor-sharing arrangement to Strom before the Times' editors decided to cut bait. The paper's Election Eve incuriosity about potential tax and campaign finance violations by Team Obama belies its repeated denials of bias and conflict. At a self-aggrandizing media conference in 2007, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller declared:
"We are agnostic as to where a story may lead; we do not go into a story with an agenda or a preconceived notion. We do not manipulate or hide facts to advance an agenda. We strive to preserve our independence from political and economic interests… We do not work in the service of a party, or an industry, or even a country. When there are competing views of a situation, we aim to reflect them as clearly and fairly as we can."
Rhetoric, meet reality.