I'm no cheerleader for The Los Angeles Times and I'd like to see their videotape of Barack Obama praising a PLO activist as much as the next guy, but as far as I can tell, the newspaper is on firm journalistic ground in refusing to make the tape public.
To me, it's pretty simple. Reporter Peter Wallsten made an agreement with a source to refrain from publicly disclosing the tape. Unless that source lets Wallsten off the hook, the reporter is journalistically bound to abide by the agreement, regardless of how much heat his newspaper takes from pundits on TV.
Indeed, 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.
Some critics have questioned why Wallsten would agree to withhold the videotape, which purportedly shows Obama with Rashid Khalidi and other Palestinians who expressed criticism of U.S. and Israeli policies. These critics note that Wallsten was allowed to describe the gathering –- a going-away party for Khalidi — in his story, so why can't he release the tape in full?
This aspect of the debate, while perhaps interesting, is nonetheless irrelevant. Again, a deal is a deal, even if it's a dumb deal. Besides, there may be a perfectly legitimate reason for withholding the tape, such as the possibility that it contains footage that would compromise the unnamed source's identity.
Conspiracy theorists now point to the fact that Wallsten's story, which was published back in April, contained no explanation about the agreement to withhold the tape from public disclosure. The only explanation of any sort, they note, was this cryptic line: "The event was videotaped, and a copy of the tape was obtained by the Times."
But journalistically speaking, there was no compelling reason for The Times to disclose the particulars of the agreement its reporter had reached with the source. Besides, there was no way of knowing months in advance that the story would become a political football in these final days of the campaign.
Still, other critics have complained that an initial statement released by The Times earlier this week did not mention its agreement with the source. But that does not mean such an agreement did not exist. Unless we have evidence to the contrary, I'm afraid we have to take The Times at its word when it says, however belatedly, that such an agreement indeed existed.
Democratic strategist Howard Wolfson told me today that Republican presidential candidate John McCain was wasting his time attacking the newspaper for not releasing the tape. Wolfson noted that McCain would be better off, at least politically, demanding that Obama, his Democratic opponent, call for the tape's release.
I couldn't have said it better myself.