There was a flurry of headlines last week when news broke that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said out loud that he thought former President Donald Trump should resign in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection. The focus was on the fact that McCarthy lied about ever expressing that thought - until, of course, he was confronted with the audio recording of him saying exactly that.
New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns broke that news with the publication of an excerpt of their new book "This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America's Future." The revelation also ignited a discussion about whether it's ethical and acceptable for reporters to withhold "scoops" like the McCarthy comment from their daily reporting to pump up book sales.
Many on Twitter faulted the reporters for not publishing McCarthy's comments sooner.
Should authors sit on news to sell books? The New Republic's Alex Shephard takes on that question: "It's an age-old 'ethics in journalism' question. Whether it's excusable to hold back information that's vital to the public interest has long been the type of concern debated in journalism schools and other forums—most news items take some time to be released, and there's an argument that holding them back (provided they're not of existential importance) for more context or information is defensible. But it's one more matter that's become a larger public concern in the Trump era. When Bob Woodward published Fear, his account of Donald Trump's response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many were furious that the veteran journalist had held onto information revealing that Trump knew that the virus was deadly but decided to minimize the risks in the hope of political gain. In the case of This Will Not Pass, we have a less urgent but still important issue: Kevin McCarthy was caught on tape saying he thought the president should resign. Shouldn't that have been a matter of record sooner?"
While the practice has become much more prevalent in recent years, broadly labeling journalists for having ethical lapses isn't the black and white prospect some think, according to Shephard. "We don't know when Martin and Burns acquired audio of McCarthy saying Trump should resign," he writes. If they had known it before the House voted to impeach Trump on Jan. 13 that could be problematic. "If they came by this knowledge after those dates, however," he notes, "it's not at all clear that publicly disseminating it would have made a substantial difference to anyone's favored political outcome in spite of the fact that it would have been newsworthy at any point."
NBC News reporter Mike Hixenbaugh made a similar argument: