Safire's dubious discovery.

Media criticism.
Nov. 1 2004 7:17 PM

Keepers—No Finders

William Safire's dubious discovery.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

That the press might hold a blockbuster story until the closing days of a campaign in order to damage a candidate is not so paranoid a notion that such an accusation can't get a public hearing. Today's (Nov. 1) New York Times devotes part of a 1,500-word news story ("Media Timing and the October Surprise") to the accusation that the Times and CBS News timed their Al-Qaqaa scoops to subvert the Bush-Cheney ticket.

"Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief political strategist, said he thought the paper deliberately timed the report in an effort to hurt Mr. Bush's chances in the week before the election," the Times reports, as it proceeds to knock down the allegation.

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Meanwhile, over on today's Times op-ed page, columnist William Safire levels the same charge against CBS News ("Osama Casts His Vote") but does Rove one better: Safire claims the technique of deliberately holding a story to punish a candidate in the 11th hour is common enough in journalism to have a name: It's called a "keeper," he writes. And he believes there is enough evidence that CBS News was aiming an Oct. 31 60 Minutes "keeper" at Bush that CBS's current internal investigation of the forged National Guard documents should be expanded to include the Al-Qaqaa affair.

Safire writes in his column:

Journalists call that hyping device a "'keeper"—holding a story for the moment when it causes the most damage—which the victim cannot refute until after Election Day, by which time it's too late.

Alas, nobody but Safire seems to have heard of "keepers." When I pounded on Nexis and Google for previous mentions, I found them nowhere but in two previous Safire op-ed columns, "Finder's Keeper" (Dec. 22, 1985) and "The French Connection" (March 13, 2003).

Safire writes in his 1985 lede:

A "keeper," in newspaper parlance, is a story held, or kept, for publication at a time it can have the most political effect. This too-careful timing of news is not as nefarious as the "roorback," or unanswerable election-eve smear, but in the U.S. is frowned on as advocacy journalism.

Safire's 2003 column defines a "keeper" more obliquely, calling it a term journalists use to describe a story "held back for publication at a critical moment. … "

I polled two dozen distinguished journalists today, but none were familiar with the concept or could recall having heard the word used this way. Here's a sampling from my respondents:

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