A New York Times story examining Republican presidential candidate John McCain's relationship with a female lobbyist eight years ago has thrust the newspaper itself into the spotlight, with McCain slamming the story as a "hit-and-run smear campaign" and conservative pundits rallying to the senator's defense. The Times stood its ground.
Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh dismissed the story as "gossip" on his show, accusing the paper of sitting on it until just before McCain had the Republican nomination wrapped up — despite the fact that the Times had endorsed McCain on Jan. 25 for the New York State primary.
Separately, McCain's top aide Mark Salter told Time magazine he believed the Times ran with the story because The New Republic magazine was about to run its own story — which it did post, on Thursday — detailing the conflict within the paper over getting the article into print, and wanted to avoid embarrassment.
Bill Keller, the Times' executive editor, said in a written response to questions from The Associated Press that The New Republic story "had nothing whatsoever to do with our decision to publish, or with the timing."
Months of internal debate?
In its story, The New Republic magazine said the Times article came out only after three months of intense internal debate that left the reporters frustrated. The online Drudge Report had reported about those frustrations in December and said that McCain had been pressuring the Times not to print the story.
"I doubt if anybody involved would call it 'dissent,'" Keller said in his e-mailed response. "As there always is on a big, long-running story, written by multiple reporters, there was lots of discussion along the way — ending in a strong consensus that we had an important story to tell."
Keller had said in an earlier statement that the story "speaks for itself." Nonetheless, the article has already taken on a life of its own, sparking a furious debate online — including the newspaper's own Web site. By Thursday afternoon, more than 2,000 comments about the story had been posted on NYTimes.com.
The 3,000-word Times story quoted unnamed McCain aides as saying that some of his top advisers feared that the senator was not aware of potentially damaging appearances of conflict of interest, and had asked the lobbyist to distance herself from him.
The issue is particularly sensitive for McCain because he has staked much of his political career on standing up to special interests, a reputation he has worked on for years since being associated with an influence-peddling scandal in the late 1980s and early '90s.
"From the looks of it, the paper is going to have to fight for its story — and its ethics — in the court of public opinion, but this is not something the Times is ever comfortable doing," New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen said in a posting on The Huffington Post, a widely read online forum.
Washington Post runs own story
Just hours after the Times published its McCain story online Wednesday evening, The Washington Post followed up with a story of its own saying McCain aides had asked the lobbyist to distance herself from the senator. They told him it would undermine his message of opposing special interests, the Post reported.
The Washington newspaper had been working on a similar story for some time and was able to finish it after sources divulged more information following the Times report, Post Executive Editor Len Downie told the newspaper trade magazine Editor and Publisher.
Kelly McBride, head of the ethics group at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida, said she saw "fault lines" in the Times' story, noting that it jumped between allegations about McCain's relationship with the female lobbyist and more "wonky" material about his dealings with other lobbyists.
McBride, who spent 15 years as a reporter herself, said that given the current political climate and the close scrutiny of the news media, "it's a natural reaction to bash The New York Times. Yes, The New York Times story has some fault lines. Do I think The New York Times is off its moorings? No."