New York Times vs. John McCain

John McCain New York Times generic
AP/New York Times
This column was written by Stephen F. Hayes.

Shortly after sundown on Wednesday night, the New York Times posted on its website a long story about John McCain, a female lobbyist, and the relationship--professional and perhaps personal--between the two. By midday Friday, executive editor Bill Keller had taken to the paper's website to offer a defense that, according to Time magazine's Blake Dvorak, represented "surrender from the editor." Dvorak concluded: "Unless the Times has further evidence of infidelity, this is a closed case."

The story first surfaced publicly in late December, when the Drudge Report noted efforts by the McCain campaign to squelch a New York Times article raising allegations about favorable treatment for a "female lobbyist." Drudge also reported a rift between the reporters on the story, who were pushing for publication, and their editors, who counseled caution. McCain, who had already hired Washington power lawyer Bob Bennett, denied the allegations at a press conference on December 20, 2007. The story seemed to disappear as quickly as it had arisen.

But among reporters following the campaign and within the Times itself discussions intensified. Most campaign reporters quickly knew at least the broad outlines of the story and details about the dispute over whether it was fit for publication. The consensus among journalists covering the Republican primary contest was that the story, having been partially exposed on Drudge, would be nearly impossible to contain.

McCain gained momentum after he won New Hampshire and South Carolina. But even as he seemed increasingly likely to be the Republican nominee, the Times story lurked as a threat to his candidacy. It was a regular topic of discussion among reporters traveling with McCain as he racked up victories.

Last week, after winning in Wisconsin, McCain publicly acknowledged his status for the first time: "Thank you, Wisconsin, for bringing us to the point when even a superstitious naval aviator can claim with confidence and humility that I will be our party's nominee for president." The Times story broke less than 24 hours later. The headline on the Drudge Report noted the timing: "Now That He's Secured Nomination: NYT Downloads on McCain."

McCain advisers don't dispute suggestions of that connection, and they moved quickly to raise money off of the perception that their candidate was being attacked because of his politics. But several of them believe it was a forthcoming story in the New Republic about the dispute between the Times reporters and editors over the story more than the inevitability of McCain as the GOP nominee that pushed the Times to publish.

Whatever the reason, the Times chose to play the story big. It was the off-lead of the paper, running above the fold in the two upper left-hand columns, and at more than 3,000 words. Four reporters received bylines, a fact that further suggested the seriousness of the investigation.

The big problem for the Times remained: The story was almost entirely attributed to "people involved in the campaign" speaking "on the condition of anonymity." The Times had only one former McCain adviser who would speak for the record, and his comment did not speak directly to the alleged affair, which was, despite the Times's awkward attempts to pretend otherwise, the most potentially newsworthy aspect of the piece.

For a supposedly explosive story, talked about for months, it was remarkably thin.

The editors of U.S. News & World Report and Time magazine both said publicly that they would not have published the article. It was not, to borrow a phrase, fit to print. The piece was so underwhelming that many believe the paper must have more evidence that, for whatever reason, it decided not to publish. Why would reporters regarded as serious and talented fight so hard to get something so thin into the paper? (One of the reporters, Marilyn Thompson, has since left the Times for reasons at least partly related to the conflicts before its publication.)

Both McCain and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, have denied any romantic relationship. Other publications have follow-up investigations going, and it is still possible that the Times will bolster its initial report with more substantiation. If McCain did have an affair, his remarkable comeback story will end as a tragedy. At press time, however, it seems more likely than not that the episode will be remembered as a monumental embarrassment to America's newspaper of record.

By Friday, even McCain's team seemed surprised at how quickly their fortunes had changed. Shortly after the story broke, Mark Salter, a top McCain adviser, had told Time magazine's Ana Marie Cox that the campaign would be releasing "dozens" of statements from McCain defenders who talked to the New York Times for the piece but were not included in the published version. But those materials never went out. Pushback was deemed unnecessary.

On the Times's website, Bill Keller admitted he was taken aback by the response. "I was surprised by how lopsided the opinion was against our decision [to publish] with readers who described themselves as independents and Democrats joining Republicans in defending Mr. McCain from what they saw as a cheap shot."

In comments over the two days of controversy, Keller denied that the imminent story from the New Republic or presidential politics played any role. "You can't let the electoral calendar govern your judgment about when to publish stories," Keller told Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz.

Maybe the timing was coincidental. Better for McCain that such a scandal story run now than, say, in early January or late October. In fact, Keller's protests would be more persuasive if not for the way his paper handled--a better word may be "stoked"--a controversy in the final days of the 2004 presidential election.

Beginning on October 25, 2004, with just over a week left until Election Day, the Times ran 16 articles and opinion pieces about looting at the al Qaqaa munitions facility in Iraq.

Some of the stories were implicitly critical of the Bush administration, others were directly so. The Times dismissed suggestions that the attention on the issue was politically motivated. But, as National Review's Byron York asked four months later: "Why was the Al Qaqaa story so important in the eight days leading up to the election that it merited two stories per day, and so unimportant after the election that it has not merited any stories at all?"

Those memories could not have been far from the mind of Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman, when he rather surprisingly offered a comment on the current Times controversy: "I think a lot of people here in this building with experience in a couple campaigns have grown accustomed to the fact that during the course of the campaign, seemingly on maybe a monthly basis leading up to the convention, maybe weekly basis after that, the New York Times does try to drop a bombshell on the Republican nominee... Sometimes they make incredible leaps to try to drop those bombshells."

By Stephen F. Hayes