Yesterday, I reported on the Union Leader’s decision to allow Newt Gingrich to be quoted as a “senior aide” and therefore trick readers into believing he was staying above the fray. It is a serious issue, in part because the Union Leader will be hosting a New Hampshire debate (scheduled for Jan. 9).
I e-mailed The Post’s former ombudsman Andy Alexander, now a “Distinguished Visiting Professional” at the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University for his take. He told me, “if the New York Times has accurately quoted [Gingrich spokesman] Mr. Hammond and the Union Leader did, in fact, grant Gingrich anonymity as a ‘senior aide’ in his campaign, it’s a deception that ill-serves readers.” Certainly such things go on, Alexander conceded. “Of course, it’s not unprecedented for news organizations to allow leading public officials to be quoted as unnamed ‘senior aides, ’” he told me. “Regrettably, it’s happened in Washington over the years when Cabinet secretaries have sometimes been allowed to hide as ‘senior administration officials.’ But that doesn’t make it right.” And it would seem to be in a whole different category when the candidate himself, the potential nominee and president, is masquerading as an aide.
Alexander concluded, “Granting anonymity should be done sparingly and only when there is no other way to attribute information that’s crucial to a story. It should never be granted to a political candidate who simply wants to avoid controversy. If that was the case in this situation, the Union Leader has risked creating the impression that its news staff is willing to protect the identity of a presidential candidate who received the paper’s editorial endorsement.”
Alexander was not alone in his view. I spoke by phone with Robert Zelnick, a 20-year veteran of ABC News and now a communications professor at Boston University. He told me, “I think a red light comes on when you are misleading the public. It is worng. It is a form of deception. It sets a poor precedent.”
In acting as it did, the Union Leader damaged its news reporters’ credibility and hobbled its own ability to be seen as an impartial and fair moderator in a debate setting. It also, ironically, undermined its own endorsement by revealing its chosen candidate to be two-faced, puffing his chest in public that he won’t go negative and privately filling his paper of choice with his opposition research.
As the TPM Web site put it: “Newt Gingrich is not going negative. At least, that’s the line coming out of the Gingrich campaign. On stage Saturday, Gingrich did finally jab Romney in person. However, before that point Newt had responded to a [slew] of attacks from the Romney campaign by taking the high road, proclaiming that he would not use negative attacks against Romney. But it seems even then there was a bit of a loophole.” Or a subterfuge scheme with a key local news outlet.
We still haven’t heard from Gingrich himself and Union Leader publisher Joe McQuaid won’t talk. But don’t the voters have a right to know why Gingrich tried to fool them and why McQuaid’s paper tried to help him do so?