Today, as the campaign for president winds down, the focus is squarely on California's largest newspaper. The Los Angeles Times has a video of Barack Obama at a 2003 going-away party for Professor Rashid Khalidi, a man accused by some of being a spokesperson for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and, thus, a terrorist.
In April, the Times' reporter wrote a story based on what was on the video. Now, seven months later, presidential candidate John McCain and his cadre want the paper to release the tape. Every indication is that's not going to happen. John McCain, who talks a lot about honor, should applaud that.
I would generally ignore this kind of topic because it's not constructive to extend a discussion that changes no one's mind, but so much of the campaign has been spent by so many excoriating the media, that one column dedicated to explaining what real journalists in the real America actually do will not threaten the national weal.
Let me start, however, with what good journalists don't do. They don't care what you think about them and the job they do. I know. I used to be one of them. (No, really. I was good.) They'll even go to jail for what they believe and to protect sources. I'm not sure why people don't understand all this, but I've had to explain it more than once this week to citizens who make the leap between being at a party to, what, being a terrorist?
An email forwarded to me asserted: "If Barack Obama in fact has nothing to be afraid of then he should tell the L.A. Times to ‘release the tape'! That will put an end to the rumors immediately."
To this I responded that any plea, unlikely as it might be, by Senator Obama to the Times to release the tape would be irrelevant. Senator Obama has no standing in this matter. The simple reason the Times will not release the tape, the paper says, is that the Times obtained the tape from its source on the condition that the paper not release it.
The rest of my email response to this and other questions regarding the Times and the tape -- one of which simply said, "Media Transparency?" -- went like this.
"As I understand it, the LA Times got the tape in question from a source on the condition that it never be released. The Times, free to make the deal or not make the deal, accepted the condition and wrote the story in April.
"I'm not sure what the question is here about media transparency as it seems that the Times has made clear the circumstances under which it accepted the tape. If the Times, for example, had not agreed to the condition, the paper likely would not have received the tape at all.
"I recognize that non-journalists don't necessarily agree with the idea of protecting sources and I would argue that using confidential sources is often a bargain made with the devil, but often the deal is made to bring to light information that the journalist believes is worthwhile. When I was a journalist, I would use confidential sources mostly to find things out and then I would go and confirm them on the record.
"I think its fine for John McCain to say that if he had met with neo-Nazis that the Times would have released the tape if it existed. I think he's wrong if the same circumstances had been in play with respect to that meeting as are apparently in effect with respect to the tape of Obama. As far as I can tell, the newspaper, for better or worse, is respecting the deal it made. The problem is, as far as the conduct of journalism is concerned, the Times potentially does itself more harm if it releases the tape.
"If this pisses off [the guy who sent the email] or John McCain or Sarah Palin or anyone, then they should do exactly what they are doing. They can also cancel their subscriptions, I guess."
The sadder aspect of this whole discussion might be that John McCain and others know that the Times is right, or at least fully within its rights, not to release the tape. I'm not really sure the McCain campaign even wants the tape released. What if the tape shows Obama being the only reasonable guy in the room? What if Bill Ayers isn't there? What if everyone is wearing silly hats?
Already, raising the Khalidi issue has brought the revelation that 10 years ago – five years before Obama went to the party now on tape -- an organization McCain formerly chaired, the International Republican Institute, had made a grant of more than $400,000 (the New York Times reported it was more than $800,000) to a group called the Center for Palestine Research and Studies (not the neo-Nazis, it turns out) which was founded by Khalidi. Maybe he wasn't a terrorist back then?
Given that the McCain campaign seems to vet the facts as effectively as Major League Baseball follows the weather reports during the World Series, one might raise the question as to whether the L.A. Times kerfuffle is not just another piece of mud the McCain campaign is throwing in the hopes that it will stick.
The mud is sticking, but mostly, I think, to the people who continue to ignore the value of finding out the facts and who would argue their side despite the available evidence and despite the damage it does, in most cases to their own cause.
Now, if you'd like to discuss my releasing the videotape of the staged moon landing in the Sonora Desert, let's start the bidding at seven figures.
ALEJANDRO BENES can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.