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Finding fault with the NYT McCain story

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Clearly the New York Times blew the Sen. John McCain and lobbyist Vicki Iseman story. To their credit, in its Public Editor column, the Times has criticized itself because last week’s front page story about McCain’s alleged relationship with lobbyist Iseman was such a colossal smear job. 

The story used the innuendo of a romantic or sexual relationship outside of McCain’s marriage to create a media firestorm and public interest. The catch is that in order to do it, the Times used two unnamed sources, staffers from the 2000 McCain presidential campaign, who said they had serious concerns about McCain’s alleged relationship with Iseman. The staffers were convinced that the relationship had become “romantic” but offered absolutely no evidence to document this.

If McCain, then the chairmen of the Senate Commerce Committee, was having a romantic relationship with a Washington lobbyist representing the telecommunications industry then that would be a legitimate story. But the Times story offered no clear evidence that such a relationship existed, or that McCain was actually influenced by Vicki Iseman. In the Sunday, February 24 edition of the New York Times, executive editor Bill Keller said; “If the point of the story was to allege that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, we’d have owed readers more compelling evidence than the conviction of senior staff members,” he replied. “But that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was that he behaved in such a way that his close aides felt the relationship constituted reckless behavior and feared it would ruin his career.”

We appreciate that the Times took an introspective look at its handling of the McCain affair because media organizations rarely do this. But the explanation from Bill Keller doesn’t wash.  You can’t go with a story on the front page, potentially destroying the reputation and possibly the marriage of the presumptive GOP nominee, based on the “concerns” of two unnamed former campaign aides. My sense is that the Times ran the story last week because the New Republic was about to publish a story that the Times was sitting on the McCain story for months. The Times was worried about being embarrassed by the New Republic. Yet, by publishing the McCain-Iseman story in such a flimsy fashion, and in such a prominent and deceitful way, they were more embarrassed than ever. 

The Times did have the McCain-Iseman story in the fall of 2007, and they opted not to print it. If it was good enough to print now, why didn’t they print it then, when John McCain was battling for the GOP presidential nomination? By all indications, the Times had no more information last week than in October or November about the McCain-Iseman story. 

Yet something funny has happened in all this: McCain winds up the victim because of the New York Times hatchet job. He not only denied the allegations in the story, but he wound up using it to raise big money for his presidential campaign. He got conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh off his back and in his corner. Limbaugh and the conservative crowd don’t like McCain but they despise the New York Times. The Times, ironically, gave McCain and the GOP an unintended gift by printing this story.

Many of us expect a lot from the New York Times. It’s a powerful newspaper and media institution. But remember, this is the same New York Times that allowed the Jayson Blair fiasco to go on as long as it did. Hopefully, the Times and everyone else in the media has learned something from the McCain debacle. If you are going to run a story that could destroy or seriously impugn the reputation of a presidential candidate or any major public figure, you better make sure you have the goods. The New York Times didn’t even come close.