Is the LA Times Protecting a Source or Practicing Partisan Journalism?

Presidential candidate John McCain has stirred up a small storm around a six-month-old story in the LA Times by staff writer Peter Wallsten. The story was hardly favorable to Obama. It examined his history of support for those who advocate on behalf of Palestinian rights and contrasts that with his current support for Israel. It explains how Obama has found common ground with two groups of people who are often professed enemies.

In the story, Wallsten describes a tribute in 2003 to Professor Rashid Khalidi, a well-known scholar and former advocate for the Palestine Liberation Organization. Khalidi was leaving his post in Chicago for a job at Columbia University in New York.

As part of the reporting for the story, Wallsten obtained a video of the farewell party, which Obama attended. He used it to describe Obama’s statements and demeanor while speaking there. The party was one of several private events that have left Arab-Americans fond of Obama, despite his public pro-Israel stance.

Wallsten is a political reporter at the LA Times who has spent the year doing unique analysis and asking tough questions off the beaten trail.

On Tuesday, Ben Smith of Politico quoted a McCain spokesman complaining that the LA Times was “intentionally suppressing” information that could reveal more about Obama’s relationship with Khalidi.

Until then, only bloggers had been asking for the video, Smith reports. Until then, Wallsten and his bosses weren’t really saying why they wouldn’t post the video. The original story didn’t explain much either. Deep into the story, Wallsten simply stated that the Times “had obtained” the video, but not how.

This week, the newspaper revealed that the video came from a source they promised to protect.

On principle, Wallsten and the LA Times appear to be on solid ground. The original story set out to document Obama’s relationship with the pro-Palestine Arab community. If someone offered up a video that would document one of these events, on the condition that he not be revealed as the source of the video, I’d advise a reporter to make that deal.

It meets the threshhold for using an anonymous source. The information cannot be obtained any other way (which is apparently true, since no other copies of the video have surfaced) and it’s crucial to the story. Sure, Wallsten could have done without the video. But the description he obtained by watching the tape was insightful and revealing. It added concrete detail to a story that was otherwise all secondhand accounts.

When I e-mailed him yesterday, Wallsten said he doesn’t “discuss conversations with confidential sources” and asked to defer all other questions until after the campaign. He never did tell his readers in the original story the video came from a confidential source. And the Times still isn’t saying why this source deserved anonymity, whether anyone else at the paper watched the video to verify Wallsten’s account, or if they’ve asked the source to release them from their promise.

Posting the video would likely reveal the identity of the person holding the camera, which may or may not reveal the source.  

There are so many recent examples where material supplied to journalists by anonymous sources turned out to be false (think “60 Minutes” and the National Guard story or the LA Times and Tupac Shakur shooting.) Journalists can’t simply demand that the audience trust us. Instead, we must always reveal our methods.

So, take this as an argument for the value of confidential sources and the value of transparency. It’s hard to cover politics on the record. Some of the most important information comes from sources who refuse to be named. But we still owe our audience an explanation. Why did we grant the source anonymity? What did we do to verify the information is accurate and undoctored? And finally, why is this specific information important to the audience?

If the Times had taken those steps back in April, it likely would have headed off this distraction in the week before the election.

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