I’VE NEVER READ A CODE OF JOURNALISTIC ETHICS, but it seems to me that this much is clear: it is absolutely intolerable for a news organization to hold onto a story for the purpose of breaking it so close to an election as to prevent a fair investigation and response. This story in the L.A. Times indicates that both the New York Times and CBS News/”60 Minutes” learned of the missing explosives story last Wednesday, and each competed against the other to break the story first. This competition is a safeguard that might work better than ethics to protect us from outrageous withholding of stories for the purpose of helping a favored candidate. I hope the L.A. Times story is correct.

Now, I’m watching “Special Report With Brit Hume,” which presents a lengthy report, indicating that the explosives, in all likelihood, went missing before the invasion of Iraq. Hume then sums up: “So, what has recently been learned by the IAEA, which is that these weapons are missing, was something that U.S. weapons inspectors detected in … May of last year.” It seems to me — correct me if I’m wrong — that the Times and “60 Minutes” aren’t to blame for pro-Kerry complicity here. Both tried to break the story quickly once they got the news. It could have been old news, if only the government had released information to this effect earlier. A choice seems to have been made to keep the information under wraps. Now that it has come out and become another basis for saying the aftermath of the war was handled badly there’s a motivation to release the information that the loss of the explosives pre-dates the war. By sitting on the evidence — assuming it is true that the loss precedes the war — the Bush administration took the risk that the story would come out before the election (and close to the election) and that it would be hard to establish the facts about when the explosives disappeared.

Nevertheless, if becomes clear that the loss pre-dated the war, Kerry ought to drop it from his argument that Bush handled the aftermath of the war badly. Or if he doesn’t, assuming it’s true that the loss pre-dates the invasion, Bush ought to fight back and accuse Kerry of relying on bad information. Yet the fact that we aren’t seeing Bush lash back with an accusation like this makes me suspect that the loss either did not pre-date the war or that it isn’t clear whether it did or not. This is a pesky issue to be dealing with so late in the game, but for those already convinced the war was woefully mismanaged, it may not matter that much. Indeed, those who accept the raggedness of the post-war effort and stand by Bush may also not care that much.

UPDATE: Many readers sent me this link to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. While there is nothing specific it in it about attempting to sway elections, readers have suggested that the most relevant general provision is:

Act Independently

Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

Frankly, I don’t think that’s good enough. “Obligation” to an “interest” is quite different from sharing someone else’s goals and wanting to help him achieve them.

I find this provision more relevant:

Seek Truth and Report It

Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. …

Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.

I still found nothing about the specific strategy of withholding a story and timing its release to affect an election, but it is obviously unethical and implied by the generalities of this code.