Failing to deliver the news

As we lament the fact that our newspapers are either on the skids or on the blocks, America’s two most famous — The New York Times and Washington Post — just showed us again that they are often great but not always good.

On Sunday, May 3, The Washington Post, winner of many Pulitzer prizes, led its paper with a story about the sweeping and sometimes intertwined business and political activities of former Democratic National Committee Chairman and multi-millionaire Terry McAuliffe, who is now running for governor in Virginia. Staff Writer Amy Gardner’s piece was fact-based, yet it was topped by a headline that made no attempt to be factual.

"McAuliffe’s Background Could Prove A Liability," the headline prognosticated in the newspaper’s place of greatest prominence, atop the right hand column of the front page. As a statement, the headline wasn’t factual; it was grammatically conditional and journalistically conjectural — fit for print only atop an editorial or op-ed punditry. To force it into a semblance of balanced journalism, you’d have to add a ludicrous subhead. Maybe: "But Then Again, Maybe Not." Or even: "But It Could Also Be An Asset."

Actually, there was a subhead: "Va. Foes Capitalize on History of Mixing Politics and Business." Of course, it’s hardly news that opponents hammer away at things like that. But whether voters will care what they say is far from certain — and certainly wasn’t demonstrated in the article.

The piece began by noting McAuliffe’s campaign theme — that he can bring more jobs and prosperity to Virginia because of his experience in business and politics. It then chronicled his successful business dealings with partners he met in politics.

Before the story jumped off page A1, there was the ubiquitous authoritarian quote from a political scientist who writes a blog. Robert D. Holsworth’s page one words seemed to justify the prominent play: "People are somewhat skeptical at the moment of certain kinds of business dealings…" Buried on page A18, in the 39th paragraph, was the rest of his thinking — a paraphrase that made the article seem less significant and made the headline seem way out of whack: "In the end, what voters think of McAuliffe’s history of mixing business with politics may prove less important than whether he presents the best vision to pull Virginia out of the recession, said Holsworth, the political scientist."

A day later, The Washington Post did a much more responsible job, when it reported big news made by its arch competitor, The New York Times. The Post reported on page one that The New York Times Co. said it is notifying federal authorities of plans to close the Boston Globe. The Times, which bought the Globe in 1993, was demanding large concessions from Globe unions.

The New York Times’ editors played peek-a-boo with the news, making readers discover it in the second paragraph of a story inside its business section. Why did The New York Times bury its own news?

Run this around your news zipper: The New York Times Editor Bill Keller didn’t believe his boss, Times Company’s chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr., was telling the truth.

Times’ ombudsman Clark Hoyt, widely admired as today’s most clear-eyed print ombudsman, reported Sunday that Keller said he believed Sulzberger’s threat to close the Globe was just a hardball negotiating ploy. Never mind that Janet Robinson, chief executive of the Times Company, insisted: "To characterize this as a negotiating stance is not accurate and does not convey the gravity of The Globe’s financial situation."

Hoyt quoted Keller as saying if he’d believed the Globe "was really on the brink of being shut down, we’d have put it on the front page." Hoyt rapped The Times, recent winner of five Pulitzer prizes, for not being aggressive on this intra-family story. A formal threat to close down the newspaper that’s long been the beacon for all New England must always be front-page news. Especially when it is all in the family.

It’s irksome when the greatest fail to deliver the goods.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)