That’s the question poised in Clark Hoyt‘s public editor column in the New York Times this Sunday, as Game Change tops the paper’s nonfiction best-sellers list. The “racy” stories of “dysfunctional” relationships are captivating, but led Hoyt to a question of journalistic ethics: “How do you deal with a talker of a book reported in a way that the paper’s own standards do not permit?”
Hoyt acknowledges the book’s newsworthiness, first by referencing Senator Harry Reid‘s apology for his racial remarks, but wonders how to represent these anecdotes from a book “written in an omniscient, novelistic voice, purporting at times to be inside the heads of players and recreating scenes and dialogue that the authors could not have witnessed.”
If you repeat some of the more salacious parts, like the supposed details of a fight between John and Elizabeth Edwards in an airport parking lot, are you just letting through the backdoor what you would never allow through the front? If you don’t, are you just burying your head in the sand while readers get the juicy stuff elsewhere?
After detailing John Heilemann and Mark Halperin‘s sourcing issues, Hoyt admits that the Times has “treated Game Change as news, but carefully,” pointing to the paper’s two reviews, multiple essays and reports. “None of the articles repeated the most titillating material,” he writes. In this instance, the Times seems adamant about maintaining its buttoned-up integrity, even though it may be sacrificing readers and page views, as well as appearing ethically conservative in an increasingly loose era of reporting on gossip.
Hoyt’s column also addresses Game Change‘s shots at the Times itself, refuting the book’s claim that op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd gave veto power on an explosive column to record mogul and big-time political donor David Geffen during the 2008 campaign.
It’s just Washington culture, everyone says of the book, and the Times is not immune to the dangers of anonymous sources. But interestingly, it’s not until his second-to-last sentence that Hoyt alludes to the paper’s own struggles with sourcing, writing that the paper “sometimes [gives] in to it more than I think they should.” That is, after all, part of the reason Hoyt has a job at all.
Secondhand Sources [New York Times]
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