The New York Times' front-page story insinuating a past improper relationship between John McCain and a lobbyist whose clients had business before a powerful Senate committee once chaired by the Arizona senator has shaken up the presidential campaign.
It has also put the newspaper smack in the middle of a bourgeoning journalistic controversy, one being heavily discussed by McCain's campaign as well as independent observers.
The story suggested that the presumptive Republican nominee was involved in a romantic relationship eight years ago with a telecommunications lobbyist named Vicki Iseman. McCain at the time was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
It stated that former top strategist John Weaver, as well as two unnamed former associates, intervened to keep McCain and Iseman apart out of fear that the perception of an inappropriate relationship could harm McCain's first presidential run. The associates, the story noted, were concerned not only about the image of the corruption-busting candidate's chumminess with a lobbyist, but were also "convinced the relationship had become romantic."
In a press conference this morning, McCain emphatically denied the story and criticized the Times for running it. Campaign advisor Charlie Black told Politico that the campaign would be "going to war" with the paper. Iseman has also denied a relationship, and her lobbying firm, Alcalde & Fay, said in a statement that it was "based upon the fantasies of a disgruntled former campaign employee."
Almost immediately after it appeared, critics assailed the Times for running the story - which the newspaper had been working on for several months - and for the timing of its release. McCain aide Mark Salter suggested to Time magazine that the decision to run the story now resulted from the Times becoming aware that the New Republic was working on a story of its own about internal strife in the Times over whether to run it.
"That sounds about right to me," a former senior Times journalist very familiar with the paper's deliberative process told CBSNews.com. "They would be terrified of people thinking they would be holding the story, for people to think they're soft."
"I think you've got a fair story about lobbyist influence and possibly being too close," the former Times staffer said. "But...any imputation of an affair is from unnamed sources, and that's foul play by the Times' own written standards. The Times' written standards require that they do not base negative accusations on unnamed sources except in very specialized cases."
The Times' standards on unnamed sources can be found here. They include this: "We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack."
Weaver, the only source quoted by name, said in a statement today that the Times was already aware that he had contacted Iseman with concerns that she was misrepresenting her ties with McCain when he was approached by the paper. "I informed the Times, in a written reply, that Ms. Iseman's comments about having strong ties to John's committee staff, personal staff and to him I felt were harmful and not true," he wrote. "And so I informed her and asked to to stop and desist."
Despite questions about how the story was presented, Mike Hoyt, editor of Columbia Journalism Review, said today that it appeared the Times had made the right call in running it.
"It's very difficult to prove an affair," Hoyt said. "You would want to be really slow to intimate that there was one if you're just speculating. But it seems to me that if top aides think there was an affair, and confronted [McCain and Iseman], and it's hooked to this other issue - she's a lobbyist with things she wants out of John McCain - when you add all that up together, it seems to me that it crosses the threshold into a story."
The Washington Post also ran a story on McCain and Iseman's relationship today, but did not include any suggestion of any romantic involvement. In a web chat this morning, Michael Shear, one of the two reporters who wrote the story, said it is "not for me to judge" whether the Times stepped over the line.
"I just want to be clear, especially in this day and age where a story like this becomes chatter on TV and everywhere, what the Post reported and what we didn't," Shear added.