Obama, the videotape and informing the public

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Earlier this month, six months after the original story was published about Barack Obama’s ties with Palestinians and Jews, people started calling and sending e-mails to the L.A. Times urging the paper to ‘release the video.’ A few notes became a flood of more than 15,000 e-mails by Wednesday morning calling the paper un-American, partisan and worse after Sen. John McCain’s campaign accused The Times of ‘suppressing’ a videotape.

The e-mails to The Times included links to an Oct. 25 blog post that said The Times was ‘hiding incriminating’ information.

Most who called and e-mailed seemed not to have even read The Times’ April news article that had brought the event in question to light, headlined ‘Allies of Palestinians see a friend in Barack Obama: They consider him receptive despite his clear support of Israel.’ The front-page piece when it was published drew some criticism from the left. But that reaction has been dwarfed by the number of page views and responses the story has drawn over the past five days. The article examined presidential candidate Obama’s view of Middle East politics. It included a description of a gathering held in Chicago by local Arab Americans for Rashid Khalidi, described in the story as ‘an internationally known scholar, critic of Israel and advocate for Palestinian rights.’ The story also said, ‘The event was videotaped, and a copy of the tape was obtained by The Times.’

The Times itself addressed the criticisms in a news story published Wednesday. In it, Editor Russ Stanton said, ‘The Los Angeles Times did not publish the videotape because it was provided to us by a confidential source who did so on the condition that we not release it. The Times keeps its promises to sources.’


Many responses were similar to that of Erich R. Bleiweiss, from Burlington, N.J., who said in an e-mail: ‘Please do not insult me by stating that the L.A. Times is protecting a source. This would only be a matter of convenience on the part of the L.A. Times and nothing more.’

Those bombarding the paper saw it as if the issues were diametrically opposed -- ‘informing the public’ vs. ‘protecting a source.’ The nuances of the issue were highlighted even more in Thursday’s news story in The Times, when various journalists added to the conversation about the principle of how journalists work with sources.

The editor of the April story, Aaron Zitner, who works in The Times’ Washington, D.C., bureau, noted that the paper would have preferred to be able to post the video but could not get the source to agree. Zitner said, ‘If we had not reached this agreement, we would not have had access to this tape at all. Then no one would ever have known Obama attended this event and spoke at it. We were pushing to say the most we could and to present the most we could to readers about what happened.’

Thursday’s article also quotes Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. ‘The calculus a reporter is making is: ‘What is the public good of getting the information, and does it outweigh the limitations that the source wants me to put on the information?’ In this case, knowing about this event and being able to describe it to readers seems like a pretty good trade-off for not being able to release the video.’

Support for The Times’ sticking to its journalistic priniciples came in a post from Bill Sammon, the deputy managing editor of Fox News Channel’s Washington bureau. Saying that the choice was ‘pretty simple,’ Sammon wrote of The Times and the reporter on the April story, ‘Indeed, [Peter] Wallsten has little choice in the matter. If he were to cave in to mounting public demands for the tape, no self-respecting source would ever give him another shred of information. Nor should they.’

Others had started weighing in earlier in the week.

Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz clarified the issue in a blog entry Wednesday on the Huffington Post: ‘A simplistic view of freedom of speech would favor full and timely disclosure of all relevant information regardless of any promises made to a source. The more complex view of freedom of speech holds that unless newspapers keep their promises (and unless the law allows them to keep their promises) there will be less not more information available to the public.’

One of the first journalists to raise the questions publicly was a blogger on Politico. Before The Times itself stated its position, Ben Smith wrote on Tuesday, ‘Critics have suggested that the Times is withholding the video for political reasons, but there are other possibilities: competitive reasons, or simply out of tradition. In the mechanics of reporting, there’s another possibility as well. The video may have been given to the paper on the condition it not be released, or releasing it could compromise its source.’

News stories Thursday in The Times and elsewhere have answered that. L.A. Times Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus was quoted in an article in the New York Times: “We revealed this event. We didn’t suppress it. It’s not unusual for reporters to be given information in ways that allow them to authenticate it but don’t give them complete control of the information. We are sometimes shown documents that we are allowed to read but not keep.”

Still the ‘release the tape’ calls come in, from those who read the April 2008 article and say they want to come to their own conclusions, as well as those who were unaware that The Times had published a story at all. Typical was this from Jim Smart of Lakewood, Colo.: ‘I am extremely disappointed that your newspaper has information on one of the presidential candidates and has chosen not to disclose it.... It means that your paper does not believe in a free press since you are willing to act as an agent of manipulation rather than information.’

But calls and e-mails like this from Michael Piekutowski started coming in late Wednesday morning, and also are coming in by the hundreds still: ‘If you were to release this source, it would scare off other sources on whistle-blowing stories.... Please maintain your integrity.’

More columns on the issue: