Acknowledging what the blogosphere has known for weeks, the New York Times finally went on record to admit that just before last Election Day it killed a politically sensitive news story involving corruption allegations that might have made the Obama campaign look bad.
But the admission on Sunday, which came seven months after NYT staff reporter Stephanie Strom's reporting about possibly illegal coordination between the Obama campaign and ACORN last year, took the form of a snarky column from Clark Hoyt, the Old Gray Lady's "public editor." Hoyt used the word "nonsense" to describe the allegations of impropriety leveled against ACORN and the Obama campaign.
Hoyt writes in the Sunday New York Times
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.
I have spent several weeks looking into this issue - interviewing and e-mailing those involved, reading transcripts, looking at campaign finance records and conferring with legal experts. In a nutshell, I think the charge is nonsense.
In his very first sentence Hoyt makes a careless mistake: it was March 19, not March 17 (St. Patrick's Day), that the "Republican lawyer," Heather Heidelbaugh, testified before the House Judiciary Committee.
Then Hoyt gets caught up in minutiae, agonizing about whether the story would have been "a game-changer in the presidential election." He downplays the illegalities, calling them "technical violations of campaign finance law."
The story involved allegations that Barack Obama's campaign, in league with Acorn, a left-leaning community activist group, was guilty of technical violations of campaign finance law. Evidence supplied by the source could not be verified. Even if the story had panned out, it is hard to see how any editor could have regarded it as momentous enough to change an election in which the Republicans were saddled with an unpopular war and an economic meltdown.
On the surface if one doesn't think through Hoyt's explanation carefully, it may seem quite reasonable. But spend a few minutes thinking about it and holes begin to appear in the house ombudsman's reasoning.
A quick digression: Of course, we can only wonder what the New York Times would have done if it had gained information that John McCain's campaign had committed technical violations of campaign finance law. The NYT did publish a blog item about the DNC's allegation that McCain's campaign had illegally procured a loan and the paper was only too willing to imply in a Feb. 21, 2008 story that McCain was having a romantic affair with a female lobbyist three decades his junior. The charge, which was based on information provided by anonymous sources supposedly working for McCain, ultimately proved groundless and the newspaper retracted it a year later. The NYT disingenuously claims that it had never intended to suggest that the lobbyist "had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain."
The aborted story that gave rise to the Obama/ACORN controversy centers around information provided by Anita MonCrief, a former ACORN employee whom Hoyt acknowledges "fed information to Stephanie Strom of The Times for several articles on troubles within the group." Apparently the information MonCrief provided was good.
We know this because Strom broke a number of important stories about ACORN and surely much of the information she used came from her trusted source Anita MonCrief. In July she reported that Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke, embezzled nearly $1 million from the group. She also reported that ACORN management covered up the embezzlement for eight years, withholding information even from ACORN's national board.
The next month Strom reported that Tides Foundation founder Drummond Pike, a comrade-in-arms of liberal philanthropist George Soros, had personally covered what remained of Wade Rathke's debt (the embezzler had agreed to a slow-as-molasses repayment plan that would have kept him in debt well into old age).
In September Strom reported on two ACORN national board members' lawsuit aimed at forcing ACORN to provide financial documents regarding the embezzlement.
She followed up the next month with a story on ACORN's efforts to sever its remaining ties with its founder. (Strom reported that Wade Rathke resigned as chief organizer of ACORN. In fact, Rathke was fired, as shown in the ACORN national board's minutes of June 20, 2008, available at page 11 of the linked PDF file.)
The same month Strom wrote about an internal memo written by ACORN's lawyer that alerted the group to potential legal problems related to its organizational structure.
But apparently MonCrief's information was suddenly no good when it might have embarrassed the Obama campaign.
Heidelbaugh testified before a congressional committee in March that the nonprofit group violated a host of tax, campaign finance, and other laws. She said the Obama campaign sent ACORN its "maxed out donor list" and asked two of the avowedly nonpartisan group's employees "to reach out to the maxed out donors and solicit donations from them for Get Out the Vote efforts to be run by ACORN."
Hoyt describes the interactions between ACORN and Democratic campaigns this way:
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."
Hoyt writes that Strom received from MonCrief "a spreadsheet purporting to be the Obama donor list, but there was no on-the-record source or other way to verify that the list came from the Obama campaign." MonCrief agreed to go on the record but the NYT suddenly discovered that she had "a credibility problem" because she "had been fired by Acorn for using an official credit card for personal expenses."
To repeat, although the newspaper knew of the supposed credibility problem, it found MonCrief's information highly reliable in previous ACORN articles. All of sudden MonCrief was deemed not credible on a story that might have an adverse impact on Obama's candidacy.
Hoyt wrote that Suzanne Daley, the national editor, "called a halt to Strom's pursuit of the Obama angle."
Hoyt then presents an expert opinion about how, even if true, MonCrief's allegations would not have been a game-changer for the election.
But PowerLine's John Hinderaker skillfully dissects Hoyt's sophistry, writing:
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.
Hinderaker also argues that "the facts as related by Hoyt don't rebut the charge; they support it."
Read Hinderaker's commentary on the case and decide for yourself if the New York Times was right to end its probe.