NYT Admits to Spiking Story Alleging Illegal Obama-ACORN Connection

Public Editor Clark Hoyt calls the charge "nonsense," yet his Sunday article confirms it.

Allegations that the Times spiked a story, right before the election, alleging illegal collusion between the far-left protest group ACORN and the Obama campaign, have been bubbling around the blogosphere since late March.

A former ACORN employee, Anita Moncrief, told Times reporter Stephanie Strom that she had evidence of "constant contact" between ACORN's Project Vote and the Obama campaign - that the campaign had provided a list of donors it could use to solicit contributions. But although Strom had used Moncrief as a source in previous stories about ACORN, the Times pulled Strom from this story. Why?

On Sunday, the paper's Public Editor Clark Hoyt tackled the accusations against the Times, defending his paper vociferously against what he called misleading attacks by Bill O'Reilly. O'Reilly was not persuaded - in fact, in his Monday night Talking Points segment, he declared war on the Times.

But even the pro-NYT Hoyt confirmed (between the lines) that the paper had made a decision not to run with the charges that might damage the Obama campaign, although first Hoyt dismissed the charges of Times partisanship as "nonsense."

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.

I'll let John Hinderaker at the Powerline blog explain some of the problems with Hoyt's account:

A key part of Moncrief's story was that the Obama campaign had furnished ACORN with lists of maxed-out donors so that ACORN could mine them for contributions. In fact, Moncrief provided the Times reporter, Strom, with such a list that ACORN allegedly obtained from the Obama campaign. Hoyt does not dispute that this story, if true, was evidence of violation of the campaign finance laws.

So why did the Times pull the plug on Strom's ongoing investigation? The story became public because a Republican lawyer named Heather Heidelbaugh testified, apparently based on information she got from Anita Moncrief, that the Times had been working on an Obama-ACORN story but that "Ms. Strom reported to Ms. Moncrief that her editors at The New York Times wanted her to kill the story because, and I quote, 'it was a game-changer.'" Hoyt undertakes to show that this charge was false.

He admits, though, that Strom's editor, Suzanne Daley, "called a halt to Strom's pursuit of the Obama angle." So the Times did kill the investigation and any further reporting. The only question is why. Hoyt uncritically accepts Daley's explanation:

"We had worked on that story for a while and had come up empty-handed," Daley said. "You have to cut bait after a while." She said she never thought of the story as a game-changer and never used that term with Strom.

But wait! Hoyt also relates that shortly before Daley pulled the plug, "Moncrief finally agreed to go on the record" and Strom had scheduled a meeting with her. It was when she called Moncrief to cancel the meeting that Strom allegedly told her that her bosses had killed the investigation to protect Obama. Obviously, if Strom was about to hit pay-dirt with an on-the-record witness, Daley's assertion that she killed the story because Strom "had come up empty-handed" is false.

Matthew Vadum of the Capital Research Center has a comprehensive account of the dust-up at NewsBusters in which he takes apart Hoyt's skillful but shallow defense:

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....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....But apparently Moncrief's information was suddenly no good when it might have embarrassed the Obama campaign....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."

Journalist Mickey Kaus is not convinced either, though he thinks the story would not have done much damage to Obama:

Are you really confident that theNYT wouldn't spike an anti-Obama story in the waning days of the election out of fear - conscious or semi-subconscious - that it might badlyhurt him ?....Even if theTimes had published sucha story, Times reporters would certainly not havehigh-fived the colleague who'd cost Obama the election. Not after two terms of Bush. And I have no faith the paper would even have published it (before allowing the reporter to slink out of the building).